Exercise in Futility?
As the nation’s tech giants battle the iPhone, we attempt to download our favorite songs to our Japanese keitai
By: Dan Grunebaum | Jul 15, 2010 | Issue: 851 | One Comment | 3,147 views

Photo Illustration by Phil Couzens & julio shiiki

The Phone: DoCoMo NEC 703i
The Song: “Jamming” by Bob Marley
OK, this was my idea. I’ve been in Japan since the dawn of time and have a semi-decent command of the language, so no problem right?

I open DoCoMo’s “iMenu” and quickly find a katakana link for “Music.” Clicking on it leads to a complicated kanji menu, with selections like “Chaku Uta Full” (full-song download), “Melody Call” (ring tone?) and “Uta Hodai” (unlimited songs).

Clicking on Chaku Uta Full brings up a search window, and in five minutes I have located “Jamming” in a list of 177 Bob Marley songs.

Now the trouble begins. Clicking on “Jamming” brings me to a choice of six sites, among them “Chaku Hit Music Full” and “Oricon Yogaku Town.” I try the first, which brings me to “Jamming (Live Ver.)” for ¥315. OK, we figured this was going to be more expensive than iTunes, but it turns out only by a few yen.

However, it seems I haven’t yet established a “My Menu” account, so I have to go back to square one. Another five minutes elapse.

Navigating back to the music download site, I now have a choice of “Tappuri Tanoshimeru Course” for ¥525 a month, “Basic” for ¥315 and “One Song at a Time.” I input my new iMode password and return to the top music page.

But where am I now? In a Japanese-language search menu, it turns out. Finally, I reach an alphabet search, but there is no Bob Marley. Where has he gone?

I decide to start again from the beginning, navigating back to Chaku Uta Full, which this time offers “Jamming” with a polite message telling me that the historic performance will have slightly poor sound quality.

OK, we are now downloading the song! The 2.83-megabyte file loads in just over one minute. Hitting play, it works—and even has a nice photo to go with it.

Conclusions? First, that anyone with reasonable Japanese can download music to their domestic model and, second, it’s not much different in price from iTunes. Dan Grunebaum


The Phone: Softbank Sharp 934SH
The Song: “Sometimes-B.C.-” by S.R.S
Being both confident in my Japanese and eclectic in my musical tastes, I decided to attempt a less-than-mainstream song for this download challenge. Though S.R.S have attracted some attention since performing the theme song for the Jyuryoku Pierrot movie last year, the young rockers still haven’t progressed much past their indie roots.

I start simple, pulling up the main “Yahoo Keitai” menu used by all Softbank phones, heading over to the “Ongaku” section and searching for the band’s name. It pops right up—so far, so good—and a quick click takes me over to the song listing.

Here’s where we hit the first snag. There are multiple listings for the song I want (with and without the CD cover image), and multiple places to download each of them. I pick the version with a cover and try my luck at the first seller, Dwango, but they want me to register first. Too much bother. I check out Oricon next, but they don’t carry the full song. Third time’s the charm, as I finally hit the jackpot with HMV.

I use the free playback feature to check song quality and am temporarily confused when no sound comes out—until I realize I’ve still got my keitai on manner mode. When the 28-second playback ends, I click download and am taken to the Terms and Conditions page where, inexplicably, there is a link to an English page (basically nothing more than the “yes” and “no” buttons written in English).

The charge (¥367) will be added to my regular cell phone bill, so I can skip the whole payment process. Admiring my handiwork, I’m pleased to discover that the song comes with lyrics, albeit in some sort of poor-quality image format that’s next to impossible to read. Mission complete. Sarah Cortina


The Phone: Softbank 830SH
The Song: “Crispy Bacon” by Laurent Garnier
My first month in Japan brought with it a ¥35,000 Docomo cellphone bill, which scared me into never clicking “iMode” again. I’ve since jumped on the Apple iPhone bandwagon, so for this challenge I had to borrow a friend’s J-phone. Which song? The last I’d listened to: the classic techno track “Crispy Bacon” by French producer Laurent Garnier.

“Sorry man, I forgot my PIN number for downloading stuff,” is the answer I get when I tell my friend what I want to do. On to friend number two.

It’s easy enough to access the browser by pushing the “Y” for Yahoo button, but I hit trouble when looking for a music link obvious to a beginner-level Japanese speaker. It’s displayed in kanji and, after clicking it, is followed by four subcategories. In kanji these are: “Free” and “Latest”; and in katakana: “Rank” and “Recommend.”

I need an electronic music category, so ignore all four. Scrolling down a bit further leads me to click on “New Music” then to “Club Techno.” The pairing of “club” and “techno” sounds good; I’m getting warmer—that is, until I see the top result, a download titled “Pure Catchy Best” by J-Pop R&B army Exile.

It was back to the search bar, with my friend attempting to enter “Laurent Garnier download.” It fails; the browser on this phone won’t allow for English characters. Next, I cheat and seek the aid of a PC to obtain the correct spelling of Laurent Garnier in katakana. “RO-RA-N GA-RO-NI-E” is one variation of the phonetics, but the searches turn up nothing of the man.

Fifteen minutes or so have passed, and I feel I am losing grasp of whatever Japanese keitai web logic I had. I pin all my hopes on a search at the Yahoo main page for leading electronic music download website Beatport, which I know several of my Japanese mates use regularly. The top result of that search? Tokyo DisneySea Resort club night “Bayside Beat.” Au revoir, Monsieur Garnier. James Coulson


The Phone: DoCoMo HT-03A
The Song: “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” by Benny Goodman
While almost everyone I know owns an iPhone, I opted for a mobile running Google’s Android operating system.

Although this is great for synching to services like Google Talk and Docs, there is no native iTunes or equivalent application. I head to “Market,” the Android app store, and within a matter of seconds, “iMusic,” a free MP3 search engine and player, is installed.

I search for the most obscure song I can think off, and two minutes later, Benny Goodman’s nine-minute jazz instrumental “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” is playing through my headphones.
There are two downsides to iMusic: first, searches for popular songs return dozens of results, most of which are not tagged with artist names and album titles; and second, since iMusic is not a pay-as-you-go store but just a search engine leading to free downloads, it occupies a legal gray zone. Kevin Mcgue


The Phone: au Toshiba W55T
The Song: “Drinking Again” by Frank Sinatra
I don’t have a smartphone. I’m still not completely comfortable with telephony, which permits you to interrupt me at will, and I certainly don’t want to integrate this rudeness into other functions of my life. I have a two-year-old phone with a faulty screen and I’ve never been inclined to use it to download music.

I open EZweb, the au data service that resembles the internet circa 1995, click the music symbol, click “Music Search,” agree to let them exploit my data, click “Artist Search,” type “Sinatra” and arrive at a list of 139 songs.

“Wow, they only have three Sinatra songs,” says my ladyfriend, who is playing along on her au phone. She’d entered via a different route, used katakana for the name, and found substantially fewer options.

I choose the song “Drinking Again,” then have to select from a dozen providers. I sign up with HMV, the only name I recognize. They offer to lease the song for 40 points per month, whatever that means, or sell it for ¥420. Almost triple the iTunes price.

After about 20 minutes, I can now play Frank on my phone. But my phone has no standard headphone socket, and I can’t work out how to set the song as my ringtone, so I’ll never listen to it again. Nick Coldicott

Japanese mobile downloading lexicon

  • 携帯電話 (keitai denwa): Mobile phone
  • 音楽 (ongaku): Music
  • 邦楽 (hogaku): Japanese music
  • 洋楽 (yogaku): Western music
  • 歌 or うた (uta): Song
  • 曲 (kyoku): Song or composition
  • 楽曲名 (gakkyoku-mei): Song name
  • 検索 (kensaku): Search
  • 着メロ (chaku-mero): Low-quality song excerpt intended for ringtone use
  • 無料着メロ (muryo chaku-mero): Free ringtone
  • 有料 (yuryo): For a charge
  • 着うた (chaku-uta): High-quality song excerpt intended for ringtone use
  • 着うたフル (chaku-uta full): High-quality, full-length song intended for regular listening
  • うたほうだい (utahodai): Unlimited music download plan
  • オリコン (Oricon): Japan’s leading provider of hit music charts
  • レコチョク (Rekochoku): Japan’s largest mobile music store

Mobile Top 10

  1. “Sunshine Girl,” by moumoon
  2. “Shonen,” by Masaharu Fukuyama
  3. “Aitakute Aitakute,” by Kana Nishino
  4. “Hello, Again ~Mukashi kara Aru Basho~,” by JUJU
  5. “LOVE RAIN ~Koi no Ame~,” by Toshinobu Kubota
  6. “Ring a Ding Dong,” by Kaela Kimura
  7. “Tamashii Revolution,” by Superfly
  8. “Kono Mama De,” by Kana Nishino
  9. “Yozora,” by ONE★DRAFT
  10. “Loose Leaf,” by Hilcrhyme

    Source: Recording Industry Association of Japan, mobile download singles, June 30-July 6

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