Japanese Designer Gadgets

You’ve probably heard that Japan is famous for it’s gadgets from a zillion models of cell phones to LCD computers outselling computers with monitors to everybody carrying a Japanese dictionary.

What you may not know is that for the most part the design and style of each is also very important to the Japanese.  Especially for music items like CD Walkmans, MD players and home stereos.  Some people buy a new portable MD player every year just to "keep up with fashion".  With that in mind, here are a few examples

Sony MD players

These are some of the various portable MD players.  The latest MD players here in Japan support a new standard called MDLP.  MDLP uses the same old $2 a piece MD discs but puts 5 hours and 20 minutes on one disc!!!  MP3 can eat my shorts.  That’s not to say I think MP3 is bad but currently MP3 is very expensive.  An MP3 player will generally come with a 64meg card which at most you can put maybe 2 hours on it and it won’t sound all that great.  Mostly like a radio.  So far I can’t hear any sound problems with on my MDLPs on top if which the batteries on my MD player will go for 66 hours!!!  If you get a playback only unit they have 100 hour models too.  MP3 players only seem to go like 10 hours max.  For the price of one 64meg card for an MP3 player I could get 60 MDs and put 320 hours of music on them.  Going the MP3 route I’d get 4 hours of music.

the colors of one Sony MD player

Almost all models from each manufacture come in a variety of colors.  Here’s the colors for one model of Sony’s

Panasonic’s designer MD players

Panasonic makes in interesting line in that they look like little plastic books.  The MD player is sandwiched between two pieces of plastic with clear windows so you can slide different pictures behind the windows.

some of Victor’s MD players

Here are some from Victor.  One of the new features that’s come out recently is the cradle style recharger kind of like a cell phone.  You just set the MD player in the cradle and it starts recharging.  The older models you have to stick a plug somewhere in the MD player.  Not quite as cool and not as pretty to sit somewhere in your apartment.

You might also be able to see above that these MD players all have a controller on the cable that leads to the headphones.  Some of them get pretty fancy with little animations of swimming fish on the display for example.  MDs support naming the music tracks and those names show up on the MD player and/or the controller.  This gets pretty important for MDLPs since you might have 100 songs on one CD.

Pioneer’s newest compo

Next on the list are home stereos or COMPOs as the Japanese call them.  They come in so many more cool designs than their American counter parts.  I guess in America they figure people just aren’t as interested in design though I seriously find that hard to believe.  Look at the success of the iMac.  I feel like if they did sell all these models they would do well.  The problem might be that the big electronics stores like Good Guys or Best Buy are not willing to carry so many models.  To them they would rather carry just one model and get everybody to buy it.  Then they don’t have to worry about over stocking.  I wonder how the Japanese companies handle that issue

Exactly the same stereo as above.  (read below)

One of the newest features to come out is changing colors.  The 3 compos above are actually the exact same stereo.  Not 3 stereos in different colors.  They are the SAME STEREO.  Using the controls you can set the color of the lights to one of 32 different colors.  As there are lights in the speakers too this allows you to set the colors to whatever you prefer including random if you want.  Maybe this solves some of the stocking issues.

another multi-color stereo

This model from Victor I think works similar.  I’m not sure it has 32 different light settings but it has at least 8.  Also all of the compos on this page are both MD and CD players.  MD is very popular in Japan.  As so many people take the train everyday they want the smallest thing they can carry and MD players are much smaller than CD players.  The middle part of this stereo slides down about 2 inches to reveal the place you put the CD in or 2 inches up to reveal the place you put MDs in.

more cool designs

Getting back to the old style these ones come in many colors but you’ve got to purchase them in the color you want when you buy it.  No magic changing lights.  Sometimes you can by the color facade separately if you want to change the color after you bought it.

the sony cmt-px5

This is the compo I ended up getting.  It’s got an MDLP player/recorder and 3 CD changer.  I got the white one.  I comes in white, silver and a special black limited model.  One of the reasons I got it is that I was also able to get a special computer interface for it.  This allows me to control the entire unit, all functions, from my PC.  The real reason I got the PC interface is so I could enter the track names on my MDs.  It’s really a pain in the butt to put them in one letter at a time on the stereo so this way I can type them on the computer.  Interestingly the interface allows the computer to output its sounds to the stereo digitally over the USB cable.

designer VCRs from Sharp and Victor/JVC

VCRs have just started to get the designer treatment.  Most of them are the old basically styleless design but just recently a few designer models have come out.  The yellow Sharp model above can sit upright or flat like a regular VCR and there are matching TVs.  They come in 3 colors.  I should have gotten one.  Victor followed suit but clearly their design is not as cool. 

Sharp’s wireless PC/TV

Even computers are starting to get the treatment although you could probably credit Apple for that.  Now of course Apple being Apple is trying to claim that any computer that’s not ugly belongs to them but anyway.  The Sharp above acts like a TV.  The thing in front is a remote to switch channels etc but it pops open revealing a full keyboard and a trackball (think notebook keyboard) and in that case it’s a regular PC.

Sotec’s Kenwood PC

I don’t know where Sotec came from but they’ve been coming on very strong in the Japanese PC market with interesting designs, great prices and lots of features.  This particular model above perfectly matches a particular Kenwood stereo that you can get in the U.S. (and Japan of course).  So they are billing it as not only your PC but your entertainment center with nice speakers etc.  It’s got firewire/iLink/1384 built in too for video editing.

one of the first MP3 cell phones

While we’re on gadgets here’s a few more.  In December 2000 3 MP3 cell phones hit the market in Japan.  They are all around $300 to $400 and comparing them with the MDLP players above they arguable don’t cut the mustard but they have the advantage that your cell phone is probably more important than your music machine and if you only wanted to carry one machine then this might be an advantage.  I haven’t checked into the batteries.  I’d be worried that if I listened to music I’d run the batteries down and not be able to use the cell phone.  Maybe they should put separate batteries in it.  One for each function.  These are the first models though so I’m sure it will all get better and eventually be better than MDLP.  One move in that direction.  One company has digital music sent directly to your cellphone.  That would give you more music to choose from.

The first Net TV?

These came out in January 2001.  They are Net TVs.  They work on the same system as the cell phones but instead they have a network modem built in.  The advantage over a regular portable TV is that over the Net, theoretically, you could eventually watch every TV station in the world.  For now though they offer around 50 channels.  It’s not quite there yet.  They run at like 8 frames a second or less and the screen is pretty small.  They also have a camera function.  You can see the camera just above the TV.

The J-Phone Sharp SH-04

I should probably make a separate page to show lots of cell phones.  It’s embarrassing how much better the Japanese cell phones are than the American ones.  This is the one I got.  It has a camera built in.  It’s mostly a gimmick but it is fun.  You can e-mail the images, browse the web as long as the pages don’t use more than 6K and don’t use certain tags.  It’s also got a 16 voice music synth for it’s ringer.  You can program your own music or download the latest hits from the web.


There’s now a flash for some of the cell phones with cameras.  Here’s a picture of one.

I noticed this model of compo from Sony the other day taking *designer* gadgets even farther.

First you start with 1 of 3 basic models which all have basically the same features.  One is black, one white and one silver.

Then you pick a panel color.  I think there are more colors than just the 5 below.

This allows you to put them together in various combinations.

The Sony page is here.

  • bionicroach
    America – Land of the Bland!

    Yes, any American gadget lover should be very jealous that they don’t live in Japan!

    You make a good point as far as the over-stocking issue goes. I hadn’t even thought of that, but it’s very possible that that is a big part of the problem. Maybe Japanese retailers are smarter about analyzing their sales data and predicting what people will like. My ongoing experience with most American electronics retailers is that they are always out of what everybody wants and seemingly also always have a surplus of the slightly lamer "gimp" models for those who are too impatient to wait for or search for the hard to find items. This sort of problem makes me think that the people who are stocking these stores either don’t know what they are doing or are purposely trying to create a "shortage" mentality so that when they do actually have things in stock people snatch them up like mad.

    Either way, I think it generally hurts the consumer and stifles a lot of potential enthusiasm about the electronics industry.

    The same lack of diversity manifests itself in the automotive market. Most of the Japanese cars I have liked over the years have since been discontinued in the US market (if they ever even got here in the first place). It’s hard to say why unique and exciting cars such as the Mazda RX-7 died in the US market. Sure, the sports car market as a whole has been hurt quite a bit by the popularity of SUVs, but I think a lot of it comes down to poor marketing strategies. If people knew how much fun it is to drive a nice sports car, they might actually give one a whirl before they went out and bought a gas guzzling behemoth just because their neighbor got one. Unfortunately, most people seem to just settle for whatever product is crammed down their throat, and it’s almost like they aren’t even aware that alternatives exist. Another example is that there is an awful lot of good music out there that most people never find because it never gets played on the radio. A lot of people seem to get used to being spoon-fed boring stuff and eventually become content to just "stick with what they know". Another example? Just look at the unwillingness of many people to try new and different foods.

    Sure, some people take the counter-argument and feel that because they are enlightened individuals who seek out the unique and better things in life they are more entitled to them and that the general public doesn’t want or wouldn’t understand or appreciate such things anyway.

    I disagree with that. Like you, I find it very hard to believe that Americans woudn’t buy this stuff if they knew it existed!

  • greggman
    Other issues

    There are a few other issues I think that may hold true for Japan. As like 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of the people here in Japan commute everyday they pass by 10 to 40 stores a day trying to sell them stuff as they walk by. This means they are exposed to stuff to buy everyday. In L.A. I’m only exposed to stuff to buy if I choose to go to a store. Well of course there’s commericals and ads, every country has those but in LA I can go nearly an entire week and generally walk by a bunch of stuff for sale and a cash register. The point being that maybe the reason somethings do better in Japan is because people are tempted by them more often and they are more convenient.

    Also, in the same vain I see more people everyday. My average day in LA or SF I see only the people at work and maybe a few more people at dinner. Probably no more than 60 people a day max where as here in Japan I probably see 2000+ people a day. In other words I see somebody with a new gadget everyday. Another thing that might push one to ‘keep up’. Of course that also means I see lots of people I would rather not see. Something I seem to be able to avoid in the U.S. because they are hiding behind their steering wheel.

    Another factor is that Japanese companies traditionally pay part of your salary as a bonus twice a year. Once in June and Once in December. It’s no surprise that the weekend after everybody gets their bonuses that electronic sales go way way up. (as well as other relatively expensive items) I’ve wondered if this *forced savings plan* encourages purchases that might otherwise not happen.

  • greggman
    Japanese Magazines that cover Gadgets

    While in some ways it seems like all Japanese magazines cover gadgets in some way or another here are a few that seem to stick out.

    http://www.ascii.co.jp, http://www.ascii24.com which are computer related but carry other stuff too

    There’s http://www.e-begin.ne.jp which is from "Begin" magazine.

    There’s "Goods Press"

    There’s "Get Navi" which appears to have a website at http://www.7dream.com/

    There’s "Best Gear"

    and there’s

    "Popeye" which has a site at http://popeye.magazine.co.jp/

    Most of those magazines are not just about gadgets though. They carry lots of fashion info too.

  • drmlabs
    sotek/kenwood pc

    Nice page! I posted this url on the alt.comp.hardware.homebuilt newsgroup – those folks love to see new ideas.
    Great web site too BTW!
    Dan Mahoney
    Catawba Island Ohio

  • tomtcom

    You had mentioned you weren’t sure of the company Sotec.  I looked them up a while ago and they are a small Sillicon Valley company.  However the last product I bought from them was under the name Averatec.  You may have heard of that, they were featuring very slim laptops known to be sold in Sam’s Club.

  • Joe

    Some really nice stuff there, but lately America is starting to invent some stuff too.

    The only problem is the price of those nifty gadgets…gotta love some designs though!

  • Matt

    I have an idea for a gadget. I am looking for an electronic company that can produce a prototype and than either manufacture or has contacts over sea to manufacture. I believe it is the next pet rock. Can anyone offer any help?

  • rossano delvecchio

    hi there
    I have got an idea to manufacture a specific type of glasses.
    I would prefer a Japanese designer, have you got any contact?