Having finally received my Alien Registration Card, I am now legally able to purchase a keitai (mobile phone). Yesterday, I set out to do just that. What resulted was a typical Tokyo adventure: what should have been a very simple task turned into a titanic struggle against bureaucracy, language barriers and inefficiency.
I started by doing some research on the ‘net. Of the three big telcos in Japan, only Softbank offers prepaid mobile plans and has a comprehensible English section to its web site.
Postpaid plans are the norm for Japanese people, but almost always have a minimum 2 year contract term. Only a few models of phone are available with prepaid plans, and so they have become known as gaijin keitai (foreigners’ phones) and have the street cred of a mid-90’s Nokia brick. Actually, a Nokia brick probably has more cred, because you can play Snake, which I guess has retro-appeal nowadays.
The Softbank web site helpfully informed me that the Harajuku Softbank store “might” have English speaking assistants, so I wandered down there. The store was clean, shiny and white, and full of iPhone 4s. After waiting in line for 20 minutes, I got to a customer service desk and was informed that since the passing of St Steve, the Harajuku store had been modified and now only sold iPhones on postpaid plans. No other phones were available. Maybe I should try the Roppongi store?
A subway ride later, the Roppongi store was a heaving mass of humanity, and a electronic sign said that there was a 90 minute wait to be served. Luckily, after taking a ticket, one of the attendants enquired as to what I was here for. After I explained, he apologised and said that there were no prepaid phones in stock. “We only get, maybe, 2 or 3 prepaid phones in each day. They usually get sold when the store opens. Maybe you could come back tomorrow at 9? Or maybe you want to get an iPhone on a 2 year plan instead?”
I asked whether there might be another Softbank store with prepaid phones in stock. Apparently not. But perhaps I could try the Don Quixote down the street?
I briefly considered explaining to the clerk the delicious irony here — ie, his suggesting I go to a store called Don Quixote to continue my apparently hopeless quest — but decided that the reference might not translate, and anyway, I’d probably just come across as a bit of a twat.
So, spying a giant waving his arms in the distance (at least, that’s what it looked like, but perhaps I need to change my contact lens prescription) I spurred on my trusty steed and gallopped into the dark heart of Roppongi.
Don Quixote is, actually, a really awesome place. Imagine an Aussie $2 shop, but slightly more ecclectic and a bit more up-market. They sell bicycles, appliances, clothes, booze, pharmaceuticals and a vast array of junk at low, low prices. On the 3rd floor, a pretty girl dressed as a witch (halloween is huge here) was trying to flog big bottles of Moet for the equivalent of AUD $35. What a bargain!
Up on the 5th floor, I waded through a sea of electronics, resisted the siren song of the video games section, and ended up at the mobile phone counter. A dude with passable English said that yes! we have prepaid mobile phones here. Well, one model, anyway – the gaijin keitai special.
What followed was an hour of form-filling. I had to show my passport, my Alien Registration Card, independent proof of my address, and provide a land-line telephone number where I could be contacted. This last one, apparently required by law, was a bit tricky. My need for a mobile phone was urgent precisely because there is no land line at the place I’m staying at. In the end, I volunteered the enquiry number for the company through which I rent my room. I really hope that the phone company doesn’t call that number.
Once the forms were done, the Don’s assistant (let’s call him Sancho) told me that once I’d paid, he would need to fax the forms off to Softbank HQ. Within an hour, Softbank would respond in one of two ways: an approval for my application, or a rejection based on the content of the forms we’d filled out, in which case I’d get my money back. With a straight face, Sancho informed me that about 50% of the time, the application would be rejected because the facsimile transmission would render some part of the forms unreadable by the time they got to Softbank. I said I hoped we had good luck, and Sancho nodded.
So for an hour I wandered around Roppongi. I ate a delicious waffle. I drank an awful cup of coffee.
Once I’d tracked down Sancho again (when I came back, he was on a different floor), I received the joyous news that my application had been successful! A mere 20 minutes of further form-filling later, I was the proud owner of a gaijin keitai, whereupon Sancho promptly informed me that said phone does not come with a charger (because a phone charger is an optional extra??) and that I would need to buy one spearately. Luckily, the Don could provide — at a moderate additional cost, of course.
I quite like my phone (specs and pictures here, for the techies – note that mine is black, not pink). It has English, and it makes and receives calls. It has a camera, and if I had the right cable (available, I’m told, at Don Quixote for a moderate additional cost), I could make it talk to my computer. It was quite cheap: about AUD$30, plus another $25 for the charger, and I also had to buy $35 worth of credit. Credit lasts for two months and must be purchased in minimum amounts of $35, so I guess that works out to a minimum monthly spend of about $20, which isn’t bad.
What this episode has confirmed for me is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. The Japanese are amazingly brilliant at most aspects of customer service — those who’ve been to Japan will know what I mean when I say that. But at the same time, it’s not uncommon to have seriously frustrating customer experiences here; experiences that one wouldn’t put up with in the West. I can’t seem to work out why that should be. What is wrong with Softbank’s supply chain if it can only deliver 2 or 3 prepaid phones (surely a core product that it’s been supplying for years) to one of its busiest stores? Why on Earth, in 2011, does a telco company need to rely on paper forms and fax machines in order to sign up a new customer??
This phenomenon is not one experienced only by gaijin. Japanese people appear to suffer exactly the same frustrations, and simply accept it as a part of life.
I guess this is the value of travel: to see how things can be done differently, and what works, and what doesn’t.