Regular readers have seen me take swings at Japanese business culture for its love of antiquated technologies like fax machines and Internet Explorer. And that’s a little unfair. Japan has contributed, and continues to contribute, many wonderful innovations to the world in a variety of fields.
Unfortunately, sometimes Japan’s good ideas have trouble escaping Japan.
Exhibit A: The Garakei. “Garekei” (ガラケー) is derived from ガラパゴス携帯電話, or “Galapagos cell phone”. It refers to the cell phones produced in Japan from around the 2000s until the peak of the smartphone era in the 2010s.
Garakei had some awesome features. Many sported a digital, contactless wallet. Hell, you could watch television on the damn things – quite an innovation in the day of 3G bandwidth.
But the Garakei phenomenon also told a story about a Japan that is sometimes so fixated on its own market that it finds itself standing apart from the rest of the world.
To understand this phenomenon, we have to understand the gara in Garakei. It’s time to look at The Galapagos Effect – and why it bugs the living hell out of many in Japan’s business world.
The Galapagos-ification of Japan
The Galapagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. They’re famous for their extreme isolation: the closest country is Ecuador, to which the islands belong, some 926km away.
They’re also famous, of course, as the location where Charles Darwin hit upon the ideas that led to the foundational work on evolution, On the Origin of Species. Darwin noticed how the animals on the islands, while roughly similar, were all perfectly adapted to their specific environments.
That makes for a powerful metaphor. And sometime in the 2000s, people in the business and tech worlds in Japan started using ガラパゴス化 (garapagosu-ka) , “the Galapagos Effect”, to refer to how Japanese technology sometimes – often unintentionally – finds itself out of step with the world.
The origins of ガラパゴス化 are misty. But the first recorded appearance is in 2004 by Sado Shuji (佐渡 秀治), then the head of marketing for VA Linux Systems Japan. A subsequent series of working group results and research papers resulted in the term spreading through various fields, including mobile technology.
The Nomura Research Institute summarized the Galapagos Effect as follows:
- There exists in Japan a market of goods and services that caters to the special needs or wishes of the Japanese consumer
- There is a market abroad of goods and services with different qualities and features than exists in Japan
- As Japan continues to develop its products independently, the solution used outside of Japan becomes a de facto standard.
- Before Japan notices, it finds itself out of sync with what the rest of the world is using.
Note that “out of sync” doesn’t mean “inferior”. In many cases, the technologies developed in Japan exceed the capabilities of those used overseas.
But, as we’ll soon see, that technological excellence can be a double-edged sword.
The case of Felica, the Galapagos IC chip
Let’s look at some examples. And let’s start with one that, if you live and work in Japan, you are likely holding in your pocket as we speak.