Although very few smartphone apps made in Japan have managed to take the world by storm, one that has is CocoPPa. Made by Japanese company United, Inc., the app allows users to customize the design of not only their smartphone wallpaper but also the icons for the other apps on their phone.

CocoPPa offers millions of designs to download, allowing users to set new wallpapers and replace icons for basic apps and common favorites such as Facebook and YouTube. Wallpaper and icons can be downloaded in sets, too, so that users can apply a unified theme to their home screen.

While in English such apps are categorized as customization or wallpaper apps, in Japanese they are called kisekae apps (which means “dress-up play”), as though the smartphone was a person and the user was changing its clothes.

Most of the designs are made by other CocoPPa users. Every day, hundreds of thousands of new designs are uploaded from around the world, screened and published by United, Inc., and available for free.

Besides this vast selection of homemade content, there are also themes based on popular brands and characters such as Hello Kitty and Snoopy. These licensed themes each cost a few hundred yen or a couple of dollars to download, which is part of the app’s business model.

What the app offers is not exactly special or new — PC wallpaper image sites have been around since the 1990s. But most of those offered images for free, whereas microtransactions on smartphones have turned it into a more viable business.

Last month, the number of CocoPPa downloads since its July 2012 launch passed 30 million. Over 25 million of these — 85 percent — were from outside of Japan. That means overseas users outnumber domestic ones almost fivefold.

Another rare app from Japan to go global is popular messaging service Line. “Only” 50 million of its 400 million registered users are in Japan. With seven times that number overseas, Line is truly a worldwide player. But only in Japan has it become the standard messaging service; it is more popular at home than any one country abroad. CocoPPa, on the other hand, has been downloaded twice as many times in the United States as it has in Japan — 30 percent there compared with 15 percent here.

I have never heard of another major Japanese app that has become more successful overseas than it is in Japan. There must be something about CocoPPa that grabs the interest of non-Japanese users.

The strange thing is that Japanese people had a head start — we have always loved to decorate our cellphones, ever since the dominance of clamshell-style feature phones, which peaked around 2008. We’ve all seen school kids on the subway with cute character straps dangling in bunches from their phone, or shops in fashion areas that sell stick-on decorative gems in ostentatious patterns.

Nowadays, research says that 80 percent of smartphone users use a case or cover on their device, which are often not only protective but decorative, too. Cellphone shops sometimes dedicate more spaces to cases than to phones. (I’ve never used a case or a strap, but maybe I’m just weird.)

You can also buy tiny figurines that plug into a smartphone’s earphone jack. These cute little cats, dogs and licensed characters serve no practical purpose whatsoever, but they make your smartphone unique.

In the clamshell era, many phones allowed users to change themes and icons, and extra ones were sold through online stores. What CocoPPa has done is to bring this culture into the iPhone/Android smartphone world. And since the app is available in English, that has attracted overseas users in great numbers, spreading through word of mouth rather than active promotion.

The themes available on CocoPPa are actually not that varied in terms of designs — you’ll notice a lot of pink and pastel colors, a stereotypical “girlie” flavor and some anime motifs. The service seems to be targeting a certain type of customer.

You might think this approach would frighten off mainstream users, but perhaps this is what made the app stand out overseas, especially among fans of Japanese kawaii (cute) culture. The majority of the world may not know or care about such a niche culture, but 30 million downloads in two years suggests that its influence reaches farther than we may have thought.

Akky Akimoto is a Japanese blogger for Asiajin and Cybozu. His Twitter @akky has about 120,000 followers.

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