Cell (mobile) phones

Japan has three main mobile/cell phone companies:

otosan.gifSoftbank - ソフトバンク
Cheapest, but worst signal (especially in tunnels and northern Okayama). The signal isn't too much of a problem for most users. Most JETs are on Softbank, due to the preference for iPhones, which makes calling and emailing cheaper.
Their mascot is a cute, white dog called 'Oto-san' (father, in Japanese).

au2.jpgAU - エーユー
The 'middle' between Softbank and Docomo. Good signal and a little more expensive than Softbank. They recently broke 3 Guinness World Records with 60 different commercials featuring Japan's uber famous boy band, Arashi.

docomo1.JPGDocomo - ドコモ
Docomo are the most expensive carrier, but they have the best signal. They're run by NTT, which is the biggest phone line company in Japan. Darth Vader advertises them for some reason.

So, which should I choose?
  • Ask other ALTs in your area for advice and tips when you arrive. They could tell you where the nearest stores are, and how their phone performs.
  • Asking around your staffroom could help. They may be able to give you tips about the performance/cost/reliability of the different phone carriers in your area.
  • For budget oriented people look at what deals and plans are on offer, and think whether you need certain things one company offers over another if it is more expensive. Some phones may be offered 'free' if you join for a contract period (eg. 2 years), or at least require no down payments.
  • There are multiple phones available, but not all of them are provided with English menus. If you're you're unable to operate a phone in Japanese, you will have less options.
  • Note: Softbank are the only carrier of the iPhone.

How do I get a phone?
You may be taken by your supervisor, or you may have to go to get a phone by yourself. If you need someone to help you, you can ask other ALTs and the PAs.
You will need someone who can speak Japanese with you, as it would be unlikely that there would be a store clerk with enough English to convey all the important information involved in signing up to a contract.

  • To set up a phone with any phone company, you need your alien registration card, passport and bank account information.

If you don't have your alien registration card yet or bank account, you should ask for a 外国人登録原票記載事項証明書 (Gaikokujin touroku genpyou kisai jikou shoumeisho) at the same place you filed for your card. It costs a couple hundred yen, but will let you open a bank account and buy a cell phone.

iPhones and Other Smart Phones
It's now possible to use an iPhone with any provider. You will have to purchase a new one with either Softbank or AU. If you own an unlocked iPhone you are able to use it with Docomo as a "Sim Free" option, however they do not stock the iPhone themselves. Softbank and AU iPhones are locked to the provider and unable to be used outside of Japan. You can however pay for the phone to be unlocked, but sometimes can be dependent on whether the sales person has been told the correct information or not.

New contracts for iPhones are 2 year contracts. The cost of the phone can be paid up front, or divided into monthly installments. If you leave before 2 years you'll have to pay any outstanding balance on the phone, but your provider may not unlock your phone until 2 years are up. Ask the sales person, but beware - sales reps are paid on commission and may tell you what you want to hear to make a sale. Softbank was notorious for telling iPhone 3G customers they could unlock their phones at the end of the contract and then not delivering. Supposedly that has now changed on the 4Gs.

Other smart phones (スマホ) are available with a variety of looks and operating systems and features. In 2011, Android based phones held the highest market share.

Smart phones have the benefits of incorporating dictionaries (get Kotoba!), maps with GPS and Kanji conversion. Many "regular" cellphones have these features, too, but in practice their functions are nowhere near as good. These features can make your life vastly more convenient, but the price is steep.

Most phones in Japan don't bother with an SMS system like in other countries; instead each phone is given an e-mail address that is used when people talk about texting or sending 'メール' (mail) in Japan. This means you can send and receive messages with your phone from the usual e-mail systems. This may make communication to people back home easier.
Phone companies allow you to create your own e-mail address, but if you choose not to you will be given a random string of numbers and letters
  • AU - '~@ezweb.ne.jp' (eg. johnsmith1234@ezweb.ne.jp)
  • Docomo - '~@docomo.ne.jp' (eg. jane.smith@docomo.ne.jp) / '~@mopera.net' (eg. omgwtfbbq@mopera.net)
  • Softbank - '~@softbank.ne.jp' (eg. miyamotomusashi@softbank.ne.jp)
  • Softbank iPhone - '~@i.softbank.jp' (eg. comical.address@i.softbank.jp)

SMS does exist, but is usually more limited as far as insertable pictures and character count. Some companies let you text numbers on the same carrier (c-mail) for free, but despite this, SMS is still not very popular.