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Fashion, function meet in Japan cell-phone culture


Posted: Dec 20, 2004 at 1454 hrs IST

For the average Japanese teenager, a cell phone is a must-have item, used for email, taking photos and keeping track of dates, in addition to the simple phone call.

But a quick stroll around the hip Shibuya district of Tokyo shows that cell phones in Japan have also become an important identity statement, with accessories like straps, antenna rings, photo stickers and fake gems reflecting the owner's personality.

That has made fashion accessories for mobile phones a big business in Japan, where even adults dangle at least a strap from their phones.

Senior high-school student Tomomi has a simple explanation for why these accessories have caught on.

"It's a way to make your phone different from everyone else's," she says.

"The item that I want most right now is a Chanel phone strap," the 18-year-old, who asked that her last name not be used, added as she showed off the rhinestone stickers, Mickey Mouse antenna ring and tiny photos of friends that adorn her phone.

Seeing a widow of opportunity, designer houses such as Hermes International, Gucci and Louis Vuitton have added mobile phone straps to their collections with prices as high as $300. A Chanel strap costs about $250, according to one online shopping site.

"Unlike many other gadgets and the personal computer, the 'keitai' (mobile phone) is much more closely tied to a particular individual," said Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist studying mobile phone use at Japan's Keio University.

"The keitai is not a group address like the home or office phone," Ito says, adding this was just one more way in which young Japanese can establish a personal identity within a well-defined group.

The tendency to decorate mobile phones can also be seen in other Asian areas like South Korea or Hong Kong, but is only starting to take hold in the United States and Europe.

It's difficult to pinpoint the exact size of the market for mobile phone accessories, but, Japan's largest online mobile phone accessory store, estimates the novelty accessory market alone is worth about 6 billion yen ($57.34 million) including phone straps that companies have made for marketing purposes.

StrapYa's chief executive, Atsushi Higuchi, estimates headsets, chargers and other hardware to be worth another 4 billion yen.

Toymaker Bandai Co Ltd. offers one of the widest selections of accessories, but many small manufacturers and suppliers each have a small slice of the market with no one company dominating.

"A lot of people buy items for themselves, and a lot of it is bought on impulse," said Higuchi, adding that he also sees a lot of collectors.


Phone makers are also catching on to the personalisation trend, and are trying to move it beyond simple accessories to the phone itself.

More than five years ago, Finland's Nokia, the world's largest mobile phone maker, introduced user-changeable faceplates.

But Japanese mobile phone maker Panasonic Mobile Communications has taken that a step further in Japan, creating flat screw-on faceplates that can easily be duplicated by tracing a template and punching in four holes to hold it down.

The Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. unit's strategy has bred a third-party business where brand name designers collaborate on faceplates, Web sites give instructions on how to make them, and amateurs create their own versions and sell them online.

Panasonic Mobile initially set the price of a faceplate at a modest 800 yen ($7.65), but scarce or premium versions designed by the company or others can go for more than $100 on the Internet.

"Until now users have tried to personalise their phones with straps and stickers, but they're at a point where they want to personalise the phone itself," said Miho Takagi, a spokeswoman for Panasonic's marketing team.

"They get bored of their phones two or three months after they've bought it, but they're too expensive to change frequently."

Since many of the phones are made by third party manufacturers, Panasonic said it was impossible to calculate the sales generated.

Dominant operator NTT DoCoMo, however, is believed to have sold about 2 million of Panasonic's phones. Assuming consumers bought an average of two official faceplates, sales would come to at least 3.2 billion yen.

Takagi says other parts of the phone can also be personalised, including the area around the screen, keypad colour and even the phone's backside.

"The potential for customising the mobile phone itself is endless," she said.

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