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Android to the rescue

If you’re under 20 years old and not Japanese you might be surprised that Japan actually makes mobile phones.

Today only Sony Ericsson, half-owned by the Japanese electronics firm, sells phones in any volume outside the Japan market.

The disappearance of Japanese handset firms from the global stage is a business study on “how not to succeed” (and probably says a lot about the country’s wider economic retreat).

One reason has been the industry’s inability to refresh itself. Whereas western handset brands like Nortel, Alcatel and Siemens have disappeared or were sold off, only in the last 18 months have the Japanese players consolidated.

The other is because they decided to focus on the local market, building handsets to specs set by domestic operators - NTT DoCoMo in particular – perhaps in the belief that the rest of the world would follow.

In any case, the days of the narrow focus are over. Japanese handset guys are putting their faith in Android, the broadest church of them all.

Sharp, NEC, Kyocera and Sony Ericsson are all betting big on Android, the NT Times reports, noting that one of the shocks was the smash success of the iPhone, gaining 70% market share in a territory where foreign brands find it tough to get traction.

So Sharp is doing things it’s never done before, like opening up its lab and working with developers, and trying to focus on customers, not operators.

The combination of Android and Japanese hardware smarts is a natural one and, who knows, might propel one of the Japanese firms into the handset top ranks again.

But Gerhard Fasol, chief executive of Tokyo consultancy Eurotechnology, reminds that the Japanese firms are merely “soldiers in the Google army, with Google as king.”

Which also reminds that the Japanese firms are also missed recruiting targets for Nokia-Microsoft, who are well short of an army.