Galapagos Gadgetry


From Reddit to Gizmodo to your aunt’s ‘fwd fwd fwd fwd: Funny From Japan’ emails, a disproportionately high number of unique gadgetry springs from the land of the rising sun.

While Japan is, historically, a bit quirky in its gadgetry, the country also has the problem of creating products that are domestically successful but don’t find a foothold anywhere else. Visit an electronics store in Tokyo and you’ll see two types of mobile phones: smartphones like the iPhone and domestic Japanese gala-kei, a term combining the words galápagos and Keitai, the Japanese word for mobile phone. These quirky domestic offerings, known as feature phones in the rest of the world, are developed to fulfill needs specific to the domestic Japanese market: osaifu-Keitai or digital wallets which feature an IC chip allowing you to swipe through train and subway gates; Manga reading features; and superficial design features such as a natural ‘wood’ phone.

Unfortunately, ‘Galápagos syndrome’ (Garapagosu-ka), the term for a product that evolves in isolation, is a very common occurrence in Japan. The term takes inspiration from the evolutionary phenomenon observed in the Galápagos Islands, described by Darwin, where local flora and fauna evolved endemically and in genetic isolation from other land-locked areas of the planet. Galápagos, as a word, has been used to symbolize just how out of touch Japan’s technology industry is with the rest of the world, failing to identify and capitalize on trends or create a customer experience that would be relevant outside of Japan. While there are a few exceptions, the decline in influence of Japan’s once mighty electronics sector is evident, partly due to this insular focus on domestic trends. This year, the struggling Sharp Corporation was forced to pull out of the burgeoning tablet computer market after just 10 months. The company had failed to anticipate basic market content requirements such as the ability to play multimedia content. While this product may have succeeded in a vacuum, it fell flat against in the burgeoning global tablet space.

Japan has long had a dichotomous relationship with the rest of the world, swinging between long periods of relative isolation and periods of infatuation and fascination with the West. Up until 160 years ago, the country was largely secluded from to the rest of the world. Under Sakouku or ‘closed country’, the official Japanese foreign relations policy, no foreigner could enter Japan and no Japanese citizen could leave under penalty of death. Compare this to the multicultural landlocked mass of Europe, or the United States’ long-standing tradition of welcoming immigrants, it is a fairly safe argument that the isolated development of culture in Japan has led to some unique attributes and peculiarities.

The global appeal of Japanese gadgets has been hit and miss. Some are able to tap into universal consumer needs and be very successful – Sony Walkman anyone? – but others are designed for Japanese-specific consumer needs and are seen as pure gadgetry and Galapagos-ka. Japanese company Neurowear’s Necomimi is a good example. The cat ears headset uses electroencephalography (EEG) to read brainwaves and manifest the wearer’s mood in the movement of the ears. If the wearer is depressed or subdued the ears will be lowered, if they are excited the ears will ‘perk up’, just like a real cat’s. The firm is doubling down on this technology with a soon to be launched tail version of the product. While this ‘augmented human body’ and physical manifestation of one’s brainwave activity may allow just the right amount of desired subtle expression in certain consumer segments inside Japan, it may be a harder to achieve meaningful adoption in geographies where direct and unambiguous self-expression is favored.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Japanese gadgets seem so strange is that the need answered by domestic-focused Japanese products may be either totally foreign to western countries, or the pain point experienced by consumers elsewhere may simply be less keenly felt than in Japan. One of the best examples of this is seen in the high-tech toilets (also known as Washlets) found in businesses, public buildings, and more than two-thirds of Japanese households. A typical experience with one of these wonder-thrones includes:

  • a cover that automatically lifts when you approach
  • a heated seat
  • the sound of Mozart or a waterfall
  • bidet functions that can be adjusted by temperature, intensity, angle
and spray
  • fragrance
  • auto flush or a variety of flush intensity choices, depending on the uh,
the intensity of your deposit
  • the water that will end up refilling the cistern first runs through a spout
at the top of the tank meaning the water you wash your hands with will be recycled

Read the rest of this article in MISC Spring 2013, The Gadget Issue 

the author

Patrick Dunn

Patrick is head of multidisciplinary insight at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

See Patrick’s full bio here