TOKYO – Once upon a time, Japan’s cellphones were the envy of the world – but no longer. In the last 12 years, US, Chinese and South Korean firms have crushed Japanese manufacturers such as Sony and Fujitsu.
Most have left the market, or like Sony, have lost global market share to the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei.
Last month, however, a Japanese firm returned to the space. Is this the beginning of a Japanese smartphone renaissance? Or is it, as some critics have declared, just “a pebble tossed in the pond?”
Japan’s new wannabe champion is not a tech firm. Balmuda is a high-end home appliance manufacturer, that has just hit the market with its Balmuda Phone.
It is a firm that is, in some ways, representative of an overlooked segment of the Japanese economy. Like Scandinavia, Japan is home to a plethora of small-scale, design-centric firms which craft a globally admired national aesthetic.
But whether such a modest player can make a splash in smartphones – a sector dominated by giants – is another matter.
Premium look, premium vibe
Balmuda’s bet seems to be as follows: if we aim at design-centric consumers who would pay US$250 for a toaster, and may well pay $1,000 for a cellphone, we’ll have a hit.
Balmuda, which went public last December, made a name for itself by selling a series of minimalist household appliances at premium prices. Underwriting these prices is a finely crafted look that bespeaks Japan’s heritage of design excellence.
In 2013, Balmuda released a beautifully crafted fan with an unprecedented $300 price tag at a time when cheap fans flooded the market. Another product, The Speaker, combines analog stereo technology with Bluetooth and lighting elements to create an art piece that also delivers a rewarding sound.
With a nod to the 1970s, you can even select the speaker’s lamp to flash and pulse in time with the music.
Also notable among the firm’s top-end, starkly branded products are a toaster called The Toaster, which costs $225, and a $500 coffee machine named The Brew.
These gadgets are winning rave reviews far beyond Japanese shores. Take Esquire’s take on The Toaster after it made its US debut.
“The Balmuda Toaster Oven is a device that can help you achieve toasty nirvana,” wrote the fashion magazine. “Sold now in the United States for the first time, the kitchen gadget attracted an almost cult-like following in Japan and South Korea for years due to its use of steam to imbue any starchy product with an almost impossible balance of crispiness and warm fluff.”
Can Balmuda transition this magic to smartphones?
The giant leap
However, there is a world of difference between making the best-looking home appliances and making the best phones – products usually carried in the pocket, and hardly icons of household beautification.
When Balmuda announced its entry into the smartphone market in May this year, expectations were high that the company would release a smartphone that would be revolutionary and unparalleled. Manufacturing was handled by Kyocera, Japan’s industrial powerhouse, as Balmuda does not own factories.
The Balmuda Phone was unveiled on November 16 and sales started on November 25, 2021.
It is an ultra-compact 4.9-inch smartphone available exclusively in black or white that features an all-curved body design. A key feature is a unique interface that makes it easy to use despite its small size.
The basic applications, developed by the in-house design team, include a scheduler, clock and calculator. The rounded body fits easily in the hand with its many curves and the backing has a solid, almost wooden feel.
Indeed, if ever there was a phone that was a joy to fondle, this one is it. “It’s wonderful to handle,” was one posted review.
Ease of use is another plus. “The apps are easy to use and it reduces the amount of time I waste on my smartphone,” wrote another user.
But when it comes to specs, the user is not getting much bang for his or her buck.
The Balmuda Phone has a very small 4.9-inch display and 128GB of storage. On the back of the phone is a single 48MP camera with an LED flash and fingerprint scanner. It features a 2,500mAh battery that can be charged via USB-C or wirelessly. The operating system is Android 11.
In spite of its middling specs, it costs 104,800 yen ($922) direct from Balmuda and 143,200 yen ($1,260) from Softbank, Japan’s exclusive mobile operator.
The overwhelming response on social media has been underwhelming.
An article in Engadget Japan titled Why were people disappointed with the Bermuda phone? A feeling of inadequacy went into great detail explaining the poor reaction on social media.
The author noted that the chipset used in the phone, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon765, was generally only used for phones priced below 50,000 yen. That means – on a technical level, at least – the phone is overpriced.
And one online critic even expressed their dissatisfaction with design, saying “it just looks like an ordinary smartphone.”
Zen feel vs Apple specs
Gen Terao, the company’s president and chief designer, is not particularly phased. There again, Terao is not a typical Japanese executive.
His career path has been almost the opposite of that taken by the average salaryman. Terao dropped out of high school aged 17, became a minor rock star, studied design and manufacturing, then founded Balmuda in 2003. He’s used to making waves and fielding brickbats.
Overpriced? Disappointing? Balmuda has heard it all.
The closest competitor would appear to be the 5.4 inch iPhone 13 mini, which was released in Japan this summer. In yen terms, it is roughly 20% cheaper than the Balmuda Phone.
Apple sales in Japan this year exceeded $28 billion, of which the bulk came from iPhone sales.
In short, Balmuda’s phone does not look like an iPhone killer – and Terao doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. He has said in several interviews that he was an iPhone user, but became bored with it.
“Apple sets the trend, and others follow. This leads to uniformity in the phone market,” he told a press conference. “There is a desire for something different from the standardized smartphone market, but no one is providing it to them. That’s why we made it … We see this as an opportunity for us.”
Terao says the high price is due to high development costs and the need to develop components, such as the display, in order to achieve a unique, all-curved look.
But even if Terao is not chasing the volume market, does the phone’s design add enough value to make it worthwhile – particularly as its features buck the main market trends?
“The Balmuda Phone is an unusual device because it’s quite premium-priced with mid-range specs and a small screen, when the trend in Android phones for years has been to offer bigger screens and higher specs at lower prices,” Sam Byford, a technology writer for The Verge, told Asia Times.
“Balmuda is of course targeting a different type of customer, but I would expect most fans of their other products already use iPhones and are well-served with the iPhone 13 mini if they want a small screen.”
Even so, Byford does not consider it hopeless.
“It looks to be a unique and thoughtfully designed product so it’ll be interesting to see how well it performs,” he said.
Demand appears to be there. According to the Balmuda online store shows, the white model is already in short supply and will ship in late December 2021. Sources at Softbank say sales are brisk.
Typically for Terao, the company has reportedly set a modest revenue target of roughly $26 million for the new phone. Clearly, they aren’t seeking to dominate the cell phone market but carve a niche in it.
Citing ease of use over high-end specs, many of Balmuda’s own applications are custom-made. The company notes that a well-designed application can make a big difference in how enjoyable it is to use a smartphone.
The company has created many apps exclusively for the Balmuda Phone.
The Scheduler is a calendar app that can be synced with Google Calendar, but you can smoothly switch from a daily to a yearly schedule by pinching in and out. The home screen can be customized with your own name or other text, accentuated by two diagonal lines that can be traced to quickly launch a specified app.
The design of the Home app and Tools can be customized.
Amid the slow-life, anti-stress trend, the company says the device is for people who enjoy the convenience of a smartphone but don’t want to be too dependent on it.
“We’ve become too attached to the convenience of the smartphone,” Terao said, noting that he has found himself wasting time on his phone.
Company spokesperson Satomi Jizenji said: “We are offering a new smartphone experience. We don’t believe that people should be spending their lives essentially living in their smartphones, but a smartphone should be a tool that enriches people’s lives and lifestyles.
“We have rethought what is the best tool for people. Rather than focusing on high functionality and richness in terms of specifications, we wanted to ensure that the user’s experience was the best it could be.
“We devised a variety of ways to make it easy to hold in the hand, easy to use intuitively, and compact in terms of the time spent on the smartphone.”
For the time being, the company only plans to market the phone in Japan. Looking ahead, its global ambitions are vague.
“We want to build a foundation in Japan first, but we have been aware of the global potential since the beginning of development,” Jizenji told Asia Times. “We would like to have a global presence at some point, but at the moment we haven’t made those plans concrete.”
Balmuda is now streamlining costs so they can make the phone more affordable in the future.
The Balmuda Phone is clearly not going to be a turnaround for a sector the country has long lost.
“The iPhone is something Japan essentially did first: Toshiba, Sharp and others were putting cameras on phones eons ago, while NTT Docomo put the internet in your hands,” a Japan-based Western analyst told Asia Times. “Sadly, Tokyo’s engineers and programmers misread the market’s direction.”
But he was gung-ho on the creative direction Balmuda was taking.
“Here, is a chance for Japan Inc to get back in the game. The past can indeed be a prologue for Japan’s phone makers and its tech innovators in general. If Tim Cook in Cupertino isn’t paying attention to this Balmuda moment, then he’s a poor steward of Apple’s future.”
A tantalizing question is how representative Balmuda is of the broader Japanese artisan sector that covers everything from high-brow magazines to craft spirits to leading-edge cutlery. These small-scale niche players naturally tend to be overshadowed by major corporates like Sony, Toyota and Nissan.
But eyes may now be shifting in their direction. Venture cap king Masayoshi Son, having been burned by the big tech wipeout in China this year, is now creating a fund designed to uncover value on home turf in Japan.
That value likely exists.
As the Japan-based analyst put it, foreign tourists who visit places like Kyoto often fall in love with Japanese products, and Japanese manufacturers may be skipping a beat by not focusing on Japanese looks.
He complained that fast-fashion brand Uniqlo was the perfect opportunity to take a mid-priced Japanese fashion aesthetic to the world, but instead, it chose a global look, essentially becoming, “a Japanese version of The Gap.”
Emil Pacha Valencia, the chief editor of Japan-centric Tempura magazine in France, agrees.
“Japan makes high-quality products in every arena. Knives, speakers, coffee cups, whisky, even jeans,” he noted. “And when they imitate something, they almost always make it better.”
In this sense, he reckons Balmuda’s leap into tech might represent a sound strategy – and possibly a benchmark: “The digital realm should be no different for them.”
Follow Jake Adelstein on Twitter at @jakeadelstein