Understanding the Galapagos Syndrome through Japan's Unique Quirks



The lingering impacts of isolation

Japan is pretty much synonymous with technological innovation, but what defines everyday life in Japan is perhaps more basic (and alien) than you think.


For the biggest part of Japanese history, the island nation went through a period of isolation termed ‘sakoku’ lasting some 220 years. However, it has since opened up to the world through events like the Meiji Restoration and post WW2 Japanese Economic Miracle - but a curious phenomenon that’s strikingly similar to the period of sakoku seems to have influenced the way the Japanese go about their daily lives.

In this case, Japan’s technological revolution has resulted in the development of technologies and practices that have failed to gain popularity overseas and can be only be found within the island nation. From tiny cars to flip phones, a trip to Japan has not only bewildered foreign tourists with how different people live but also how successful Japan has become - despite being so starkly different from the rest of us. 

Photo from PhoneBuff

Photo from PhoneBuff

Mobile Clamshell Phones

It is without a doubt that Japan was once the world leader in mobile phone technology. Before the world even got close to basic 2G internet, the Japanese were already enjoying the joys of web surfing and texting via e-mail. To the rest of the world, these technologically advanced phones were icons of aspiration - a brand of Japan itself. 

But why are you reading about technology and phones that have been long outdated? Well, in case you thought flip or clamshell phones died out with the fashion trends of the early 2000s, these types of feature phones are still very popular in Japan because of their ease-of-use and familiarity. These were also once the most popular phone types in Japan. Remember that wireless connectivity didn’t begin with the tablet-sized phones with styluses, but with these very compact Japanese flip phones.

However, as the touchscreen revolution proceeded in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone, flip phones have all but died in the rest of the world - except in Japan. In the island nation, mobile phones and the networks they rely on have progressed so far ahead of the rest of the world’s ‘dumb phones’ that they are more than adequate in fulfilling the needs of users with simple daily tasks. With an ageing population, it is harder to rationalise and convince people that a replacement for these phones is needed.

Recently, these feature phones (often in clamshell/flip-phone form factors) - euphemistically called Garakei, from the combination of Galapagos (connoting isolation) and karei (the Japanese word for mobile phone) - have been gaining popularity. In 2015, NTT Docomo (the country’s largest call/text/data provider) estimated that 45% of its subscribers are still hooked on these ‘feature’ phones. To this day, many well known Japanese phone brands and manufacturers still produce and cater to flip phones.

Just like how old Nokia brick phones are now famed for their durability, Garakei phones hold a much longer charge and are more resistant to breaking from drops as compared to their ‘smart’ relatives. Monthly fees for feature phones (with slower speeds) are also cheaper due to their more limited capabilities. However, for someone who is satisfied with just calling, texting and light internet browsing, these feature phones (and their lighter footprint) are more than enough. Oh, and they now come with 4G LTE and Quad Core processors too and don’t forget that they’ve been able to pick up Japanese TV broadcasts for well over a decade now.

But why did these phones fail to internationalise? Well, their Japanese manufacturers seem to have a laser focus on the domestic market and produce models that adhere solely to Japanese telecom standards, failing to cater to a broader international market. 

For work devoted Japanese, real entertainment only exists at home - smartphones with their multitude of apps and games are needless distractions at work. And perhaps, feature phones will never truly die out in the country as children and the elderly who don’t need these expensive smartphones anyway still find value in a garakei phone.

In addition to the Galapagos phone, while Japan also first brought to market innovations like mobile internet and camera phones, these technologies used communication, mobile internet and frequency standards that were incompatible with foreign systems. By being able to market to a then-vibrant domestic economy, local companies saw no need to cater to export markets - a grave misstep. If they did, maybe we'll see an iPhone flip phone. Just kidding - God forbid.

The use of Suica through flip-phones, photo from Tebura.ninja

The use of Suica through flip-phones, photo from Tebura.ninja

Mobile Wallet Technology

The Japanese have long been able to pay for train tickets, products from convenience stores and many other operations with mobile contactless functions using the FeliCa identification and communication standard from Sony. 

However, the technology was also never adopted overseas despite how early it was introduced to the Japanese market. It was not until 10 years later in 2014 that Apple unveiled its own NFC enabled payment system to the world, one which is built upon the RFID technology utilised by these FeliCa cards. 

This meant that the standard was essentially useless outside of the country whilst companies like Apple and Google had to tweak their NFC technology to accommodate the FeliCa standard (the infrastructure surrounding it, that is) instead of using it outright. 


Kei Cars

There is a particular quirk about car ownership in Japan - and it’s due to how the Japanese perceive the how driving fits into their daily lives and indeed, its place in society. 

Whereas in America, cars are the symbol of freedom and are frequently used to traverse the huge distances in between the country’s cities, the Japanese use cars to connect short but otherwise un-walkable distances. Intercity commuting is left to the country’s expansive network of trains that are ALWAYS on schedule and efficient. In the US, this is simply not the case, with train networks consistently running late and chronically underfunded. 

The cost of using highways in the country is notoriously expensive as well, with the journey from Kyoto to Tokyo costing S$121 in tolls. With tolls that high, it's no wonder that people don't drive long distances and instead opt to take the train.

Japanese cars are also significantly smaller and way more energy efficient than their counterparts elsewhere. In smaller cities and towns across the country, Kei cars are <660cc vehicles that are incredibly space and energy efficient - just about enough to get you to and from the supermarket with a few bags of groceries. While many people praise the quality of Japanese import cars, it is unlikely that you will get these compact cars any time soon even though they are routinely considered the best small cars in the world in terms pof fuel efficiency.

If you don’t see such cars whilst on your next trip to Tokyo or Osaka, just head into one of the smaller towns and prefectures in Japan and you’ll soon encounter a whole fleet of Kei cars on the roads. And if you notice that the roads in these places are smaller, then you would’ve stumbled upon another reason as to why Kei cars are really popular in the country.

Differences in mindsets have also much to contribute to the effervescence of the Kei phenomena. Many of the cars run fully on electric engines due to the Japanese fixation of being environmentally mindful. Driving an electric car, which would be considered daring in other countries, is just about one of the least one could do if he or she weren't already separating their trash into 34 different categories

Furthermore, Japanese tax laws have also encouraged manufacturers to create such vehicles as road taxes, excise duties and other levies are often a significant fraction or even half the cost of regular ‘large’ cars. 

The landing page of Rakuten Japan still yields a hodgepodge of confusing information utilising text and banners

The landing page of Rakuten Japan still yields a hodgepodge of confusing information utilising text and banners

Japanese Web Design

Take a quick peek at any website of a Japanese company and you’ll notice some stark differences compared to the websites we know from the ‘western world’.

First of all, information is abundant and splattered all across the website; hyperlinks, banners, clocks and multiple promotional advertisements all compete for the viewer’s attention. Navigation (both for reading a single page and getting around the site) is difficult because you never quite know where a button or banner will lead you to. Site backgrounds are, for the most part, plain. A cursory look would show you that this approach to design dominates the entire Japanese corner of the internet, as if the entire country paid ONE firm with questionable design aesthetics to curate content for the whole internet. 

Many would say that these present-day sites bear a huge resemblance to the websites that first sprouted up when the internet first came to be. Back then, as coding abilities (both the language being used and the coder) were much more limited, it was hard to program beautiful transitions, videos or animations. Multi-layered sites were pretty much impossible.

These days, as capabilities have increased exponentially and the world starts to embrace the minimalist revolution,* it seems as if the Japanese have been stuck in time, continuing to stick to the old web design principles of yesteryear. For a people who have been ridiculed as being resistant to change, some have even found comfort in this explanation for the continued popularity of static web layouts. Then again, we shouldn't be prescribing onto others, what is considered as 'good website design'.

1. The fundamental restrictions of the Japanese script
2. The ease of adapting the site to both desktop and mobile formats
3. Preference for larger volumes of information on sites
4. Coding languages themselves  


Another inherent ‘loss in translation’ issue that arises is when English (or non-logographic language) speakers view Japanese websites, the difference in the type of script throws them off simply because it feels so foreign and alienating. 

Moreover, stroke scripts (or logographic languages) are extremely dense compared to languages that use the alphabet. The former tend to concentrate strokes into a single character (vertical space) whereas the alphabet spends more horizontal space to convey meaning. The preference for vertically or horizontally dense scripts are certainly a matter of personal preference (which is probably wholly attributable to upbringing) and thus we can see why the Japanese are completely fine with the system that they’re using. 

Additionally, the use of strokes allows its speakers to process a large amount of information within a short period of time, which, understandably, would allow them to be comfortable with a similar clutter of information on a website. 


Anyone who’s seen a ‘modern’ website that’s not been adapted well for mobile screen know that the UI is terrible. Buttons don’t work, images overspill their boundaries and the site is pretty much unusable. The Japanese design however, due to its blocky banners and text-dominant design has little problem adapting to the mobile screen as all that needs to be done is to adjust the dimensions of the content. 

Add to this the fact that Japanese companies had to design websites for a mobile audience that dwarfed desktop users in the initial stages of the internet’s development (in other countries it was the opposite), and you can start to see why web design evolved (or perhaps stayed still) in this particular way. 

Volume of Information

Being passive is often a defining factor of Asian societies and this is not lost on the Japanese. Preferring to not ask questions and to inquire more (ie. hunt for information in sub-sections of the site), the Japanese have a preference to have everything upfront which means that homepages that cater to this inclination become cluttered with information - the more the better. 

By extension, the use of coloured backgrounds, fancy navigation bars and icons just seems disingenuous and misleading. Japanese people are also more likely to observe and digest the information presented to them before acting quickly to move to another part of the site, unlike other more ‘opinionated’ people. 

One can also compare the online space to the physical space - any one of the mega districts within Tokyo where everything from neon signs, floor standing signboards and even lanterns try to grab the attention of passers-by. Unlike the native Japanese, tourists often get overwhelmed by this influx of information. From this, we can begin to see how innate (and important) the readiness of information is to the Japanese people. 

One of the studies listed in the article mentions how Japanese participants viewed decluttered and multi-layered sites as ‘lacking credibility’ because the sites weren’t offering enough information (in any form) to the viewer at one go. This impacted the participant’s appreciation of the site and willingness to use it. Much better analysis of the phenomenon is done by Mario Sakata who writes here

*Though the Japanese are fervent participants and advocates for minimalism (they do after all have MUJI), this somehow has not appeared in their web design preferences.

Linguistic differences

Anyone who’s tried to learn web design languages like Java would know just how hard it is - most often give up. Now, imagine attempting to learn it if English isn’t your primary language.

That’s not to say that Japan (or any non-English speaking country) has a lack of skilled coders, but it is not unreasonable to posit that the learning curve would be somewhat steeper. Undoubtedly, this would deter people from learning these skills or at the very least, mean that the transference of new coding practices and design techniques would take just that bit longer to proliferate amongst designers in Japan. In addition, Japan has been notoriously resistant to learning English - whether this is due to difficulty or feelings of cultural superiority is another debate.

Some people also point to the fact that the Japanese exist within a conformist society that avoids standing out too much from the crowd. While society is indeed shaped by such pressures, I doubt that that is a major factor when it comes to web design. In this vein, I think that the reasons are more psychological and technological instead of societal. But then again, who knows - maybe there really is just some shitty web design firm that has somehow managed to conquer the entirety of Japan’s bizarre corner of the internet. 


The Steps of Incremental Innovation 

From the above examples, it would be folly to paint Japan as a society that is locked in its own ways. For one, these inventions are in some part refinements of already groundbreaking technologies, hinting that the Japanese have a 'refining' rather than 'revolutionary' approach to innovation. It is perhaps for this reason that Japan is consistently marked as a stable country and society, which many people around the world would long for.

If you've ever wondered as to why certain Japanese customs and traditions were indeed 'Only in Japan', this article should have given you some answers. However, the roots of Galapagosization and the island mentality runs deep in Japan, cutting across all facets of society and how behaviour is governed.

The conclusion to draw here is not to say that Japanese phones, cars and web designs are bad in any way - even though from an outside perspective, they seem to far removed with the requirements of everyday tasks. Yet, it is for that particular reason that these products have been able to prosper. They cater to a Japanese market which, as we’ve realised; have very different lifestyles, tastes and preferences when compared to the rest of the world.

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