If I were starting a tech website in 2011, I would probably have wanted to hire someone in Japan, which was at the time the undisputed home of gadgets — floating bathtub TVs, widespread NFC use, robot dogs, and so on. Fortunately for me, the founding editors of The Verge agreed, bringing me on just before the site launched. At first, I had a lot to write about right on my doorstep.
But as my beat has become largely focused on Asia in a broader sense, and as my roles and responsibilities grew, I’ve witnessed other countries — particularly China — grow to outsized importance in terms of our coverage. It’s a little sad to say so, but Japan isn’t the force in consumer tech it once was.
When I first started at The Verge, I was purely focused on writing news, and since there are often days when not very much happens in my timezone from a Verge perspective, I’d spend a lot of time digging up things that were happening in Japan. Hence this story about NTT Docomo having installed 60 (sixty) Qi wireless charging pads across the entire country, for example. Today that sounds like a ridiculous news item, but that’s the kind of thing Japan was known for back then — the country was often ahead when it came to the rollout of gadgety technology.
Back then, major products often came out here first, too. One of my first big projects for The Verge was our PlayStation Vita review since the handheld was released in Japan soon after the site launched — and months before it’d be available in the US. This was a truly frantic effort that involved constant back-and-forth emails with editors in the US, several thousand words of text, and a lot of Uncharted in my shoebox Osaka apartment.
CES 2012 followed a couple of weeks later, and that’s where my former Japan-based colleague Jeff and I got used to The Verge’s style of hands-on reportage. We were both living in western Japan back then, but after we returned from CES, we moved to Tokyo because we figured we’d have more opportunities to do that sort of thing. And for years, we did. We’d go to all of SoftBank’s, KDDI’s, and Docomo’s mobile events, for example, in search of unique devices like this absolutely wild 3D Evangelion-themed Sharp phone or a Japan-exclusive HTC phone with the world’s first 1080p mobile display.
It’s difficult for Japanese consumer electronics companies to compete with the sheer manufacturing scale of China
I had a lot of fun going to these events with Jeff. We’d patiently sit through the interminable press conferences, rush to the demo area as soon as we could, then usually write everything up using portable Wi-Fi hotspots at a nearby izakaya. But I haven’t been to one in many years. The iPhone gradually took over Japan, and while you do get the occasional outlier like Sharp’s new Leica phone, the appetite for unusual hardware here shrunk accordingly. It’s difficult for Japanese consumer electronics companies to compete with the sheer manufacturing scale of China, or, well, Samsung. Japan’s crown jewel, Sony, is mostly now just known for the PlayStation, though it’s still a leader in components like camera sensors.
Fortunately, I still had things to do. The early years of The Verge saw Samsung, and to a lesser extent LG, snap up huge swaths of the global Android market, which often gave me cause to hop on over to South Korea. I’d visit Computex every year as Taiwan’s influence continued to grow in the PC industry. And not too long after people started to realize that companies like Xiaomi had moved on from pure knockoffs and were actually making good phones, China emerged as by far the biggest driver of mobile hardware innovation.
Before the pandemic, I’d find myself in China a few times a year for various product announcements and briefings. (Or human-versus-AI board game tournaments.) The journey to Shanghai or Shenzhen is somewhat longer than it is to Shibuya, but it’s usually been worth it — Chinese phone makers like Oppo, Huawei, and Vivo have consistently been making the most interesting products for the past few years. It’s unfortunate for our readers that they’re largely not available in the US, but on a personal level, I’m pretty glad that the job of covering them has fallen to me.
That’s not to say Japan doesn’t have its advantages. After a slight downturn, it’s roared back into video gaming relevance — I was one of very few Western media members present at the first Nintendo Switch launch event, for example. I was also in the room when Pokémon Go was first announced, which turned out to be one of my most-read breaking news stories ever. The camera industry also continues to be almost entirely reliant on Japanese companies. Photography and video games are two of my biggest passions, so it’s always going to be a good place to be based in that regard.
Overall, it’s been a heck of a decade to cover technology in Asia. My role doesn’t necessarily require me to dig up news on Japanese gadgets anymore, but there’s never been a shortage of things to write about. I’m not sure I expected to be doing this for 10 years from the start, but at this point, bring on 2031.
Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge