Japan: Where the iPad is changing lives

March 25, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Apple's iPad is a revolutionary device, yes. But Japan has embraced it in unusual ways.

By Michael Fitzpatrick

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FORTUNE -- Best-man Toshiyuki hands out two iPads at a Japanese wedding reception. He's something of an early adopter while some of the older guests are unfamiliar with touch screens, despite their country's tech-savvy reputation. But the tablet's intuitive quality wins them over as they begin happily perusing a slide show of images from the betrotheds' lives -- not something wedding guests might do outside of Asia but which, in Japan, is de rigueur.

Applications unique to Japan are blossoming here thanks to Apple's (AAPL) iPad. In the absence of a popular home-grown alternative, domestic app makers have come up with some unusual -- sometimes inspiring -- approaches. "The fishermen in Hokkaido are using the iPad to record where they have fished to avoid over-fishing. In Saga prefecture, all the ambulances uses iPad to quickly locate where the patient has to be transferred. In Kobe, physicians using iPads during operations," says Tokyo-based tech consultant Nobuyuki Hayashi. "I could name another cool 50. There is almost nothing on Android tablets."

What is working in Japan? Here are a few examples:

Marriage of Convenience
With heaps of protocol to observe, wedding planning in Japan is a complex affair. What an expensive, human wedding planner might otherwise do, the Chabio app promises to accomplish with minimal fuss. Not only will it keep tabs on all the necessary information -- such as your fiancée's mother's name -- but it also sports a huge pre-populated to-do list. It is divided by time frame (e.g. six to 12 months prior to wedding, four to one day before the wedding, etc.), so users won't be shouting "get me to the church on time" on the big day. Guests can also use Docomo's popular "i-concier" service to point their mobiles at a wedding invite and be told how exactly to get there.

MORE: 50 greatest business rivalries of all time

See the World
Japanese cellphone owners have long enjoyed location-based services and spiffy mobile navigators. But the Sekai Camera app goes further to generate "a new, fourth dimension everybody has dreamed of," says Takahito Iguchi the application's creator. Like other so-called augmented-reality apps, it calculates your position, then, using the camera, displays location-specific information graphically on top of a real-world view. But the genius of Sekai Camera is that individuals and businesses can add their own information. They just point a smartphone/tablet camera at the landscape adding "tags" that can include text, images, and sound that can be picked up by others in the area later. Tags can translate into coupons from businesses (a free Guinness when you stop at a bar serving the blackstuff for example) or travel tips from friends.

Waiting for Godot
As witnessed in post-tsunami Japan, looting is rare. So, hand out an iPad in a pub with a menu on it, or in a restaurant, and you are very likely to have it returned. Without fear of theft, many restaurants now use iPhones and iPads as order-taking devices (for the waitress). What's unique at Toku, a Korean BBQ restaurant in Kyoto, is it uses the iPad as a menu/ordering system for direct use by customers. It could make waiting on tables obsolete.

Golden threads
Former fashion model Kaoru Igarashi had a theory, based on the golden mean ratio, that there might be an algorithm capable of calculating what fashion best suits you using your vital stats and facial dimensions. A tie-up with online fashion retailers Digital Fashion generated that algorithm. The result is an app that proves her theory used by a department store in Kobe to recommend suites and dress. An iPad is used to snap the customer, and the program does the rest.

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