Using imported mobile devices may be illegal

by Akky Akimoto

Special To The Japan Times

Residents of Japan may be shocked to learn they are technically violating the country’s Radio Law by connecting computers, smartphones and tablets that have been purchased outside of Japan to domestic WiFi sites.

Although legislation says such violations are punishable by up to a year in prison or a fine of up to ¥1 million, the regulation has never been strictly enforced.

But the law is quite clear: All wireless devices sold in Japan must have a technical conformity certificate (gijyutsu kijyun tekigō shōmei, which is usually shortened to giteki in Japanese). Electronic devices that have such a certificate adhere to regulations under the Radio Law.

Governments worldwide have tried to ensure that wireless electronic devices don’t interfere with other products on the market. However, they are generally only able to control devices within their specific sphere of influence. Japan issues giteki certificates, China CCC certificates, Europe CE and the United States FCC.

If you wish to use an electronic device in Japan, it should have giteki certification. Devices with FCC or CCC certification are invalid as they meet a different criteria of technical specifications.

This isn’t to say that electronic devices purchased in China or the United States won’t work here. An Android smartphone purchased in Europe, for example, will almost certainly be able to connect with WiFi sites in Japan.

Where the certification is recorded depends a little on the device. Although users won’t find a giteki sticker on the external casing of an iPhone, it can be found in your settings menu. An imported version of the Galaxy S5, by comparison, is unlikely to have any visible indication of certification, either on the casing or in the settings. Naturally, a Galaxy S5 obtained through either NTT Docomo or KDDI Corp. is, of course, giteki certified.

Domestic tech news sites and bloggers often import the latest foreign electronic devices privately in order to test them for local audiences. Google Glass is the first example that springs to mind. Such sites have recently been criticized for promoting products that are by nature illegal.

Reports have even surfaced that some bloggers go to such lengths to avoid criticism that they’ll rent a special room that is covered in tinfoil in order to keep radio waves from the foreign electronic device they are testing from interfering with surrounding devices.

Some tech observers say such certification is a form of trade protectionism that helps insulate domestic vendors from the influx of cheaper foreign products. But it’s not quite that simple.

It’s ultimately impossible to set a universal global standard: There are countless WiFi sites accessible and an exponentially infinite number of mobile devices in use at any one time.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said last June it would try to create a framework to ease requirements as far as tourists are concerned by March 2015, in an attempt to cater to the increasing number of tourists expected in the leadup to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Easing such requirements, however, is not ultimately expected to lead to legalization — a course of action that was mentioned in a presentation by a senior executive from the communications ministry at a conference organized by Internet Initiative Japan, a famed telecoms company.

A number of online commentators took this to mean that the ministry was thinking about legalizing all imported smartphones that did not have giteki certification, but it’s probably too early to be making such suggestions.

The government is unlikely to scrap its system of giteki certification and only tourists are like to get a pass when using electronic devices purchased overseas — at least in the foreseeable future.

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