In smartphone era, flip phones finding second life among elderly Japanese


The smartphone may have the dominant position in the marketplace, but old-school flip phones, or garakei, are finding a second life among elderly Japanese because of their low cost and ease of use.

Shops handling used garakei are visited by many people looking for handsets for their elderly parents, who often seek the same, familiar models they used to have.

Keitaiichiba Co., a Tokyo-based company with about 10 shops selling used garakei, receives letters of gratitude from customers with comments such as, “I could find a mobile phone for use by my 85-year-old mother.”

Keitaiichiba has been logging strong sales since it opened its first shop in November 2017 and handsets priced from around ¥5,000 are in strong demand, according to the company.

Roughly 70 percent of buyers are men, including many businesspeople who purchase garakei for communication with their clients.

“About 20 to 30 percent of visitors buy handsets as gifts for their parents,” said Hamakazu Awazu, president of Keitaiichiba.

Smartphones with a variety of advanced functions are standard items for young people, but older people unfamiliar with high-tech devices tend to prefer older handsets.

Garakei are also inexpensive. According to research firm Mobile Marketing Data Labo, smartphone users often pay ¥7,000 to ¥9,000 per month to cover communication charges, handset prices and other expenses, compared with ¥1,000 to ¥3,000 for users of older phones.

In the 3G era, mobile phone service providers, in cooperation with handset-makers, introduced a succession of innovative handsets, such as those capable of sending and receiving photos taken by built-in cameras. NTT Docomo Inc. achieved a blockbuster hit with its mobile internet surfing service called i-mode.

But garakei’s days may be numbered as mobile providers are soon set to end the 3G services used by the phones. KDDI Corp., under its Au brand, and Docomo will discontinue services at the end of March 2022 and in the middle of the 2020s, respectively. SoftBank Corp. plans to partially end 3G services at the end of November.

But before the expiration of 3G services, mobile providers plan to introduce 4G-compatible garaho phones, or garakei-type handsets that can use smartphone apps, including popular social networking services in a bid to encourage users to shift to smartphones. Garaho is a term coined from garakei and sumaho, or smartphone.

Although the number of smartphone apps available for garaho phones will be limited, they will be as user-friendly and as inexpensive as garakei handsets, according to mobile providers.

Garaho phones, therefore, may attract elderly people wishing to continue exchanging messages with their grandchildren, analysts said.

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