Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I just got a new Vodafone Japan phone to mess around with the network. In particular, I'm curious about how SMS evolves or fails to evolve in Japan.

So here's what I tested. I have a T-Mobile US SIM in a Nokia phone and was able to send and receive SMSs over both the Vodafone 3G network and the NTT DoCoMo 3G network. I was able to send an SMS to my Vodafone Japan phone, but not to my NTT DoCoMo phone. However, I was NOT able to reply to the SMS. As far as I can tell, but Vodafone Japan and DoCoMo disable sending SMSs to any other network than their own, but Vodfhone Japan allows you to receive an SMS from outside the network. This is for people with accounts on those networks. Their networks DO allow people who roam on their networks to send and receive SMS freely.

I am going to Finland tomorrow so I will try to use my Vodafone Japan phone there and see if it still blocks my SMS. I have a feeling that since the SMS server is probably where they block it, that it probably won't change anything.

The good news is that the 3G networks in Japan allow 3G phones and 3G subscribers from outside of Japan to roam on the Japanese networks. The bad news is that the Japanese networks are bringing their old-fashioned closed network philosophy and crippling connectivity between their networks. How stupid.


SMS doesn't happen much in Japan because everyone has a phone that does straight-up email. And email certainly isn't a "closed network" with crippled connectivity.

Are 3G phones from outside Japan incapable of email?

I roam with Vodafone Japan all the time and never had a problem sending and receiving SMS from Voda or non-Voda users. MMS is a little more tricky and sometimes requires switching off automatic carrier selection.

Kyle: This is with a Vodafone Japan phone # on Vodafone Japan's network... you can SMS to other networks?

Durf: Good point... but many foreign phones don't do SMS and SMS has a stronger "push" element than email. I use it in a fairly different way than I use email. Technically, they have similar characteristics, but from an installed base perspective in Europe, SMS is definitely much more common for text messages.

I'm on my way back from Japan typing away on Lufthansa flight LH711 (great wifi service !) and all I can add is that my Orange (France) phone let me send and receive SMS back to France without any problems or delays.

PS : first visit to Japan and I loved every minute of it !

SMS does have two advantages - it is push, and people in Europe are familiar withthe context. However it is also worth saying that it is the most expensive telecommunications service known to man on a per-byte basis. 25 cents for an international SMS, length 160 bytes is the equivalent to around 1600 euros/megabyte. It makes GPRS roaming look cheap.

Perhaps SMS are much more useful in latin based langauges, like English ? For example, "see you later" can be shrortend to "c u later". In Japanese its bit more difficult to make it really "short message".

I have to concur with Durf on this one. SMS is virtually non-existing here in Japan with nearly 100% of the 3G phones here having Internet and email capabilities.

On the other hand, seeing as many phones outside Japan do not have email, I can see it as a weakness that you cannot communicate fully with them from a Japanese phone. Using a SMSEmail gateway is all but a walk in the park.

Joi: What 'SMS has a stronger "push" element' do you mean?

Regarding SMS on Vodafone Japan network. I just email to their cell phone. Nowadays people can send a PXT or MMS and that works just as well. I can also attach pictures too.

The first thing that I noticed when I came to Japan is they use Emails to comunicate between phones instead of SMS. As you said the problem is that each company uses his system, AU with Cmails, Vodafone with Skymail.... So people end up using emails that are supposed to be universal. I think that going to SMS is going one step backwards.

Let's clarify things:
- mobile email has nothing to do with 3G. it started on i-mode (PDC system) in 1999
- mobile email is priced according to volume in Japan
- a mobile email the size of an SMS costs 0.02 cents, versus 10 cents in most European countries
- mobile email in Japan is "push" (i.e. you don't need to check on a server or click "receive") and "always-on", just like SMS
- you don't need to "configure" anything apart from chosing you email address when you first get your new phone (you can also keep your old address)
- the main reason why operators outstide Japan have not switched to mobile email is because they don't want to let go what constitutes now 15% of their revenues (ARPU): pricey SMS
- the language has nothing to do with the usability. Chinese users send SMS all the time for 0.01 cent (1 billion messages a day) and enjoy predictive typing - in Chinese - like everybody... Just count the number of keys you have to press to type "cu later" et "deha mata" (ではまた)in Japanese

Anyway, good luck with SMS!

Joi: Yes, I can use my Vodafone JP mobile to send and receive SMS from mobiles on other networks. As long as you format the SMS with the country code (+64, for example), I've found SMS to be very reliable.

off topic - but hope you will be at Sonar to see your good friend Ryuichi Sakamoto perform

Insen - Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto

should be good!



When I arrived in Helsinki yesterday, suddenly all of my test SMS from my Vodafone account to my US T-Mobile phone. Go figure. I wouldn't call it reliable, but at this point, I'm not sure whose fault it is.

@ Anton: Good point, SMS are _extremely_ expensive in most European networks on a per-character basis. (Late) professor Axel Zerdick (old CV) had a pretty simple explanation for this - and this leads back directly to the different way of using SMS vs email: You don't really pay to communicate with another person, but more importantly TO AVOID direct communication.

Sure, a lot of people use SMS because emailing via mobile phone is still too expensive and to new in European networks. But a great deal of communication via SMS is stuff like "won't be showing up", "i'm late", or other kinds of negative communication that make people try to avoid a person-to-person talk...

SMS roaming (send and receive SMS message outside your home network) is another subject of roaming managers. Before like 2000, roaming managers only needed to take care of voice roaming. Now SMS / MMS is roaming is another line of GSM businesses.

I could tell you that roaming managers from Vodafone and NTT DoCoMo works hard enough to make sure you can send and receive SMS outside Japan, and to allow roamers receiving SMS in Japan. It should be T-mobile chasing after Vodafone / DoCoMo, for the benefit of T-mobile users outside the home network. T-mobile will pay for the SS7/ IP-based signaling / data connection to the Japanese carriers. But for sending /replying, NO. For profit, it's still too small, not worthy for Japanese carriers to work on it.

On the other hand T-mobile would work with company like Mobile365 ( for SMS int'l interworking. That makes both T-mobile and the Japanese carriers jobs easier.

It's not just business or policy decision on SMS roaming. Japanese and many other Asian carriers, only roaming managers can speak English fairly well. Others in the roaming team don't. So you gotta appreciate their willingness and courage of dealing with foreign carriers :-P

For SMS local interworking in Japan, I don't even see they have people working on it....

Thanks for good story. Just FYI. In Korea, SMS communication has no problem between SKT,KTF,LGT and including their new 3G. It is quite cheap and really popular but MMS is different. Mobile carriers have tried to build their own brand and service. In perspective of user, MMS is really sucks because it costs both sender and receiver. Recently SKT try to unify SMS/MMS application on mobile phone into SKT solution instead of manufacturers.
By the way, Koreans have no problem with inputting Hangul(Korean) for messaging at all. But there is no predictive inputing system. May be that's unique.

This is an old thread, and in 2010 SMS-email for mobiles in Japan hasn't changed much. Instead, if you need to send _SMS_ the outside world, you'd be better off using one of the email bridging services:

Even brastel the telephone calling card provider has a text messaging services rolled out:

Of course, you have Skype too.

Maritex seems to have the best rates and coverage, though.