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WEB

Japanese cell-phone users don’t just talk about weather — they vote on it

by Akky Akimoto

A surprising number of Japanese purchase their weather information from cell phones, services that don’t just tell you if it’s raining — they let you vote on it.

According to research by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), about 20 percent of Japanese check forecasts on their phones. Of course, TV reports and newspapers are the more common method, but 20 percent is no small potatoes and it includes people who are paying for the service.

Several weather services are competing via the official portals of cell- phone companies: DoCoMo’s i-mode iMenu, KDDI au’s EZweb and SoftBank Mobile’s Yahoo! Keitai. Through all of those services, customers can get basic information, such as today and tomorrow’s weather predictions. But most of these sites have pay-membership options as well.

Take the largest portal, iMenu, for example — it gives the user a choice of 13 weather information services in the order of most to least popular. The current No. 1 service is Weathernews (wni.jp), which is run by Weathernews Inc. The company says it is “the first weather service company ever listed in the First Section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.” According to Weathernews, the number of paying users on the cell-phone site is 1.6 million, slightly over the number of active Japanese Facebook users (who get that service for free).

Weathernews’ free content includes daily and weekly forecasts, weather warnings, international forecasts and meteorological news via movies.

It’s a pretty decent service, but the 1.6 million paying users also have access to 80 more types of content that encompass all sorts of alerts related to weather and natural disasters.

Paying users can subscribe to one of two services that cost either ¥105 or ¥315 per month. The ¥315 option offers even more features that user can access. When you do the math, 1.6 million users paying at least ¥105 means the company earns at least ¥168 million every month.

Otenki Yohou (weather forecast) by MTI, the second most popular choice on DoCoMo’s iMenu after Weathernews, announced that their paid members surpassed the 1 million mark in September. MTI is known for its cell- phone music distribution service music.jp.

Assuming that one person would have no need to subscribe to two different cell- phone weather services, we can conclude that the top two services cover 2.6 million cell-phone users, which is around 2 percent of the population. When factoring in the other 10 services competing for a presence on Japan’s cell phones and the (at least) ¥100 each customer pays to use these services, it’s easy to see that weather is a serious industry in Japan.

Japanese users might be willing to pay for such services because of the scope of what they offer. Most sites go beyond forecasts and into areas such as earthquakes, train delays, even fireworks and cherry blossom information. Information is personalized according to GPS locations and timed alerts.

However, another possibility as to why Japanese users are so willing to pay for the information is because they simply don’t know about the free alternatives. Cell-phone users are so accustomed to paying for content that many of them don’t search for nonofficial free services.

The JMA has a weather website, but doesn’t provide a cell-phone version.

Weathernews also runs a very interesting program that employs their users as citizen meteorologists. Around 200,000 users have registered themselves as “weather reporters” and send through weather-related photos, movies and even analysis from their cell phones. Weathernews says it gets more than 5,000 reports every day. Yahoo! Japan’s weather service takes the idea of user-generated content even further with voting functions available on their mobile and PC websites. When a user pinpoints their region on Yahoo! Weather there are voting panels that will allow you to report the weather you are seeing at that moment. At the peak time, you can see thousands of visitors reporting rainy, cloudy or sunny conditions in the same location. According to the service, whether or not it is raining at the time is not decided by pressure systems, but by how everyone sees things. It seems that in Japan, even the forecast is fixed for us in a democratic way.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com. A Japanese version of this article is available on his blog at akimoto.jp. You can follow him @akky on Twitter.