Cellular Considerations

There are several mobile carriers in Japan, of which the top 3 are probably NTT Docomo, Softbank and au-KDDI. From what I’ve read, the mobile coverage in Japan decreases accordingly from Docomo to Softbank to au (with differences in specific areas, of course, but this is speaking generally), but so does the price (meaning that Docomo plans are usually the most expensive). I’m not sure about the data speeds provided, but I think there’s a similar trend there. My own experience with Japanese mobile speeds is limited strictly to the two times I’ve used b-mobile, a MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that leases Docomo’s network and the one time I roamed on Softbank’s network. Both times, my travels were largely limited to urban areas (Tokyo, Kyoto, etc) and I only used their 3G network, not the 4G or LTE network, so I can’t really speak for Docomo’s Xi LTE or Softbank’s 4G speeds. Their 3G speeds are, well, not too far off from my home country’s – that is to say, slow & spotty, and almost unusable in the underground train network.

Now, how’s this relevant to me? Obviously, being the tech geek that I am, I’m highly concerned about the options available to me when I go over in August. I’ll just talk a little about mobile carriers here, since I haven’t done much research into fiber-optic speeds for homes. According to this coverage map on OpenSignal for the Kobe area, NTT Docomo ranks best, followed by emobile (which I’ve honestly never heard of before this), then au-KDDI and finally Softbank.

Coverage map showing 3G & 4G coverage

From here, it seems like you can’t go too wrong with choosing either NTT Docomo or emobile; the latter may have significantly lower upload speeds compared to Docomo, but appears to be more reliable and has a lower ping.

I went about looking at the product line-up for each of these carriers, and Docomo has by far the most updated and latest phones available, with a much wider range and variety available for the consumer.

  • Docomo’s product line-up includes the Galaxy S4 and Sony Xperia Z
  • au’s product line-up includes the HTC One (64GB variant, yay!) and a variant of the Sony Xperia Z
  • Softbank’s product line-up is.. to be honest, quite pathetic. Aside from the iPhone 5, all the other phones are years behind
  • emobile’s product line-up is similarly poor, if their (Japanese-only) website is anything to go by

Based on product line-up alone, I’d probably go for either Docomo or au. I’ve never jumped on the iDevices bandwagon, and much prefer to be able to hack, tweak and customise my Android devices as opposed to living in the high-walled, restricting environment that is iOS – but that’s just my opinion.

I don’t really have a lot of research done for price plans, but they seem to charge you a la carte based on the services you want to subscribe for. In any case, going through their websites for the various charges and services available thoroughly confused me. Here are links, make what you will of them.

  • Docomo – by far the most confusing
  • au – still confusing but slightly less so
  • Softbank’s iPhone plan – oh my god, tables that make sense! Sort of. Significantly more understandable and less confusing
  • emobile – everything is in Japanese, wall of text, brain.. refuses.. to.. proc- *fizzles out*

I should probably look through them and try to get a Japanese friend to explain to me what’s going on, how plans and billing works and all. But I’ve nearly forgotten about why I made this post in the first place. Apparently most of the JETs in Kobe use Softbank, and there appears to be free intra-carrier calling available, ie. Softbank to Softbank, Docomo to Docomo, and so on. It is probably more conducive to socialising if I get a Softbank line as well then, since fellow JETs will then be able to call me without abandon (depending on my popularity or lack thereof), but like I mentioned earlier, I’m resisting the idea of getting an iPhone quite a bit. Considering that LINE offers free calling, and my current usage informs me that I very rarely make or receive calls on my phone, I’m wondering if I couldn’t just get a Docomo or au line with a phone that I’d prefer using instead.

Sure, this is a pretty trivial problem in the grand scale of things, but it’s something that bothers me. Why is there such an imbalance in the line-up available at each carrier? Why are the plans so confusingly laid out? Why can’t everyone use wonderful tables that break down components of a plan and still provide an overall fee you pay per month? What if I have to use an iPhone after all?! How perplexing.

Alternatively, I suppose I could skip getting a phone line altogether (or circumvent it with a Skype line) and subscribe to one of the available data-only prepaid plans.

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3 thoughts on “Cellular Considerations

      • Tommy Lee Jones is the spokesperson for Boss Coffee in Japan. When you live in Japan, you will even see his face on the side of vending machines. He is the Western celebrity that was most visible in commercials while I was in Japan.

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