TOKYO: Competition is heating up in Japan's smartphone sector, as companies like NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and Softbank offer new handsets aiming to exploit rising demand among consumers.

NTT DoCoMo, the country's largest mobile phone operator, holds 46% of the smartphone market, and hopes to push this figure beyond the 50% mark by the close of the 2012/13 fiscal year.

The firm, Japan's only big carrier not selling Apple's iPhone, is to launch 16 smartphones by August 2012. Its partners include Sharp, Sony, Samsung and Toshiba, with all of these devices using Google's Android mobile operating system.

"The market isn't driven solely by iPhones any longer," Kazuto Tsubouchi, NTT DoCoMo's chief financial officer, told Bloomberg. "Each of the new models can compete with iPhones with improved memory capacity, speed or touch-panel sensitivity."

NTT DoCoMo expects to accrue 2.8m additional subscribers during the current fiscal year, and believes purchase levels of its smartphones will hit at least 13m in 2012/13, measured against 8m in the previous 12 months.

"The growth speed of smartphone sales in Japan has been faster than we anticipated," said Tsubouchi.

KDDI, the second largest player in the mobile category, also last week outlined its intention to introduce five smartphones under the "au" banner by May, again running on Google Android.

This slate of products features handsets with in-built near field communication and FeliCa mobile payment tools, alongside another promising enhanced video playback and gaming, and an alternative for "first-time" or elderly users.

Softbank, the third ranked operator in Japan's smartphone market, is also due to announce its own selection of rival offerings on 29 May, 2012.

Todd Day, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, the insights provider, said: "The [Japanese] market has become more competitive since iPhone and Android have rapidly grown and entered the market over the past two years."

According to comScore, the digital research firm, sales of smartphones surpassed those for feature phones for the first time in Japan in February 2012. Overall, an estimated 19.3m people now possess these gadgets.

"Japanese mobile phone users were already highly engaged with their devices," said Daizo Nishitani, vice president of comScore Japan KK, "but with the added functionality and higher levels of mobile media consumption we should expect to see significant changes in behavior."

Data sourced from Bloomberg/ZDNet; additional content by Warc staff