Western media and electronics consumers say the darnedest things about Japan. Partially owing to Japan’s unique innovations in the field and partially due to this gadget-loving demographic’s attempted appreciation of Japanese culture, many view the nation as the ultimate litmus test for geek paraphernalia. Whether or not a device succeeds or fails in Japan often colors Western audiences’ perceptions of the product. For Eastern-facing consumers, the slow uptake of a Western product in Japan may suggest a lack of sophistication or foresight on the part of its manufacturers. Meanwhile, those indifferent to Japanese tastes often respond defensively to the same data, claiming it demonstrates outlandish stereotypes about Japanese culture.

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Take, for example, Western gamers’ reactions to the Xbox 360’s performance in Japan. During its early life in the country, sales of the Xbox 360 were … slow, to say the least. Take a look at any article or blog post about Japanese hardware sales, and usually you’ll find Xbox 360 at or near the back of the pack. This phenomenon has resulted in heated debate: Many Japanophiles in the West say the country’s slow adoption of the Xbox 360 is evidence of the console’s (and, by extension, the West’s) technological inferiority. Conversely, some Xbox 360 fans contend that the system’s mediocre sales in Japan is due to outright xenophobia

Both sides of the debate can be disabused of their assumptions by looking no further than Microsoft’s long-time rival, Apple. If Japan was so biased against American products, how could Apple’s line of iPods jump ahead of Sony in sales in July of 2005 immediately following the company’s launch of the Japanese iTunes store? (The iPod would later move on to claim a 60-percent share of the Japanese music player market.) Whether or not Apple’s music players are superior to Sony’s is a matter of opinion, but the implication that the Japanese have an aversion to American products clearly doesn’t apply to Apple.

2005, in fact, was no flash in the pan for Apple’s presence in Japan. Although the company is by no means dominating the Japanese market, they continue to be a force to be reckoned with. The latest generation of the iPhone, the 3GS, topped the sales charts in Japan for July 2009, and was the only American phone to have breached the top 10 that month (in two spots, no less, with two different models). In fact, the iPhone and iPod Touch are doing so well that Nintendo is beginning to fear for its previously unchecked dominance of the handheld gaming market; the Kyoto-based company recently blamed the iPhone and iPod Touch for its slumping sales and profits.

In light of this, it should be no surprise that major Japanese game developers like Capcom and Square Enix have embraced the iPhone and iPod Touch as platforms for game development. Square Enix, for example, has extended its Final Fantasy series of games onto the iPhone and iPod Touch with its Crystal Defenders: Vanguard Storm spin-off. As for Capcom, they recently created a version of Resident Evil 4 for the iPhone. And that’s not all: Taito has created an iPhone-specific version of Space Invaders called Space Invaders: Infinity Gene, and Sega has been soliciting ideas from the gaming community about what games they’d like to see on the platform.

Still need more evidence of Japanese developers’ interest in the iPhone? Earlier this year Japanese middleware developer CRI revealed that over 80 percent of the game developers they interviewed wanted to develop for the device. Positives that Japanese developers cited for iPhone development include the size of the market, the ability to release simultaneously in over 80 countries and the iPhone’s multi-touch capabilities.

Some Japanese developers didn’t even need the lure of potential riches to embrace Apple. Hideo Kojima, the man behind the Metal Gear series of games, has been a longtime Apple fan, going so far as to include Apple product placements in Metal Gear Solid 4. He has even made appearances in Apple stores in both Japan and the U.S. (Of course, there’s also the small matter of Kojima designing from the ground up an iPhone entry to the Metal Gear series, Metal Gear Solid Touch.)

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So many (though by no means all) Japanese apparently love Apple. That begs the question: Why has Apple succeeded in the Land of the Rising Sun where other Western companies have failed? Apple itself has tried to frame its answer in terms of the iPhone and iPod Touch’s superior feature sets compared to other portable gaming devices. But that answer alone isn’t satisfactory. While the quality of Apple’s products is as plainly evident as the company’s ability to market them, there’s another force that has helped Apple’s performance in Japan: curiosity.

As radically different as Japanese and Western cultures are, both share a fundamental curiosity about their distant neighbors; indeed, the Japanese are as curious about us as we are about them. And for those who may not be willing or able to travel across continents to experience a culture firsthand, trade is one way to satisfy that curiosity. Need proof? Take a look at a typical listing of box office performance in Japan. For example, in 2007 five of the top-10 highest grossing films were American. And American-style fast food does pretty well in Japan if the enduring popularity of McDonald’s is any indication.

Apple has tapped into this curiosity in Japan by providing a product and attitude that is unabashedly Western. Granted, any Western company who wants to make inroads in Japan will adjust its marketing strategy accordingly, and Apple has done so to some extent via its partnership with Japanese carrier SoftBank. But Apple has accomplished this without overcompensating and venturing into the disingenuous territory of attempting to appear natively Japanese, something that has plagued many Western companies’ attempts to make a dent in the Japanese market.

This becomes apparent when you examine the typical iPhone user in Japan: someone who is savvy with Western media. Many Japanese who purchase the iPhone use it to access social networks that are popular in the West, such as Twitter and Facebook; Apple’s handheld isn’t nearly as popular among those Japanese who regularly use Japanese-specific social networking sites like Mixi and Gree. This strategy seems to be working well for Apple in Japan, and for a good reason.

Think of it this way: Western fans of anime and Japanese videogames look to those media precisely because of their Japanese-ness. If they want to watch or play something Western, they watch or play something by a Western company; they don’t look to the East for something their home turf can easily provide. The same goes for Japan as well – if someone in Japan is curious about Western culture and technology, they’re more likely to purchase a product made by a Western company.

We can attempt to “other-ize” the Japanese all we want, but as Apple has aptly demonstrated, sometimes in trying to find things that make us different, we end up reaffirming our similarities. How do you like them apples?

Phillip Miner is a freelance writer from Rochester, NY, who likes both apple pie and sushi … and apple pie sushi.

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