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After initial failures in the Japanese market, Facebook and LinkedIn may have caught their second wind

For years US based social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn have had very poor penetration in Japan despite having more features and better UX design than local competitors. Homegrown networks such as Mixi and Gree dwarf the Japanese localized versions of their American counterparts, but change may be afoot. Over the last year I've noticed my Japanese friends and colleagues starting to appear on LinkedIn. A friend of mine who owns a Tokyo-based recruiting firm recently told me LinkedIn has started to become a useful recruiting tool for him, where previously it was useful only in their Singapore branch. One of our Japanese team members was just telling me that local software development interest groups have started to spring up on LinkedIn. This is interesting because, due to LinkedIn being embarrassingly late to the Japanese market, numerous other companies attempted to create viable business social networks (most notably Yahoo! Japan's CU) but all met with failure. It was presumed that this was because of cultural barriers such as membership indicating a lack of loyalty to one's current employer.

While Facebook Japan has also met with very limited success over the past few years they've seen considerable growth in 2011. In August of 2010 penetration stood at a paltry .6% with 1,348,860 users - about 1/20th of their largest Japanese competitor. This year they have jumped to 3,059,000 users. Unlike LinkedIn, Facebook paid close attention to localization issues from the beginning including a strong mobile play and introduction of features that are of interest to Japanese users. After arriving in Japan the night before last I logged into Facebook to find several clever subtle localizations. For example, in the featured profile information area at the top of my profile page (i.e. the area with birthday, hometown, languages, etc.) there is an "Add your train station" link.

Its clear from their Tokyo office and considerable expenditures on Japan-specific development that Facebook is serious about making a dent in Mixi. It will be interesting to see if their rewards are commensurate with their investment. Over the past ten years I've watched many, many failed attempts by US web companies to enter the Japanese market. Twitter made it here, but they didn't have any significant local competition in the microblogging space and, despite doing an initially poor job of localization (using byte rather than character limits and not supporting Japanese hashtags), they benefited enormously from a popular Japanese movie that was basically, "You've Got Tweets".

Finally, Japanese adoption of Foursquare, which I wrote about during my last trip, has continued to grow at a furious pace. My first check-in in Tokyo suggested 32 specials nearby. This isn't surprising given the fact Japanese companies have been experimenting with location based social apps for nearly a decade.

Update: The launch of Google+ certainly changes the game in terms of non-native social networks in Japan. In addition to the Japan-friendly strict isolation and clear indication of post visibility provided by circles, Google is already a household name in Japan. Facebook, on the other hand, will have to invest considerably more to build their brand equity within the country.

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Comment by Daniel Nishimura on July 1, 2011 at 10:50am
@Mika - good point.  Circle (enso) = symbol of Zen
Comment by Mika Leuck on July 1, 2011 at 10:24am
I think Google+ has a chance in Japan. Scott is right - Japanese people will like the concept of circles. You can make friend lists on Facebook, but Google+'s circles are easier. Also, who you put in your circles is private. People don't know what circles you've put them in.
Comment by Daniel Nishimura on June 30, 2011 at 11:20pm
This article has an interesting point.  Google+ may not beat out facebook, but it has a good chance to beat out twitter because google+ basically provides tweets, but for targeted circles.  You may not want to share with colleagues that you're doing belly shots in cancun.  
Comment by Daniel Leuck on June 30, 2011 at 12:31pm
@Scott I agree. Google has a lot more brand equity in Japan and the UI is great - far better than Facebook and Twitter.
Comment by Scott Murphy on June 30, 2011 at 7:10am
I also want to add that I think Google+ will be more successful in Japan than Facebook (eventually).  The design is better, the concept of cirlces is very Japanese-like and you are able to maintain a balance between your various social groups.
Comment by Scott Murphy on June 27, 2011 at 8:23pm
I've observed something similar in that most of my mixi friends are pretty inactive.  I hardly log into mixi because no one ever updates their profile.  I think Facebook is much more engaging and overall, a better platform.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on June 27, 2011 at 1:32pm
@Marcus - Yes. They carry an iPhone for the apps (and the fashion!) and a Japanese mobile for all the features iPhone is missing that are common in Japan such as Osaifu-Keitai (mobile payments via contactless near field communication), Mobile Suica for train stations, etc.
Comment by Marcus Sortijas on June 27, 2011 at 10:33am

Nice to get an update on the social media market in Japan.  Back in January this article ran in The New York Times: Facebook wins relatively few friends in Japan


This almost reminds me of how the iPhone initially wasn't well-received in Japan, but I hear that now a lot of Japanese carry both an iPhone and a Japanese smartphone.  Is that true?


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