What Companies Can Learn From Facebook’s Failure in Japan

While hugely popular across the Western world, Facebook failed to emulate the same level of success in Japan. The Japanese prefer other social media platforms, mainly those, like LINE, that are home-made. Why is that? When foreign companies enter the Japanese marketplace, a critical aspect of their global business strategy is to understand the local business culture and consumer behavior. In tech, this can translate to features like application menus and user interfaces. But translation alone doesn’t work, especially in a country like Japan. Not only does Japan have a very different messaging style and user interface, there are also other, deeper cultural reasons why Facebook failed to blaze in Japan like it did in other countries.

Facebook was slow out of the gate in Japan

What partly led to Facebook’s failure to become as important in Japan as abroad, was its technical disadvantage, to begin with. Facebook’s feature phone adaption was late in the Japanese market. Most of the popular mobile sites in Japan at that time like Mixi, Gree, and Mobage were independently designed for cellular phone browsers by using a lot of cellular phone-specific capabilities. As early as 2008, Japanese tech blogger Akky Akimoto predicted that Facebook would struggle to gain traction in Japan. Facebook’s lack of Japanese applications, menu localization, and mobile adoption were some initial obvious barriers. Until a proper Japanese UI and UX was developed, Facebook would not be “Japanese.” Akimoto noted that volunteer bilingual users for localization and translation in a Web 2.0 style pointed in the right direction, but menu localization and translation would only be the first step. There would have to be a lot of work to make it a real Japanese website.

The Japanese social media market: translation wasn’t enough for adoption

By 2011, Facebook Japan had less than two million users — less than 2% of the population, which can certainly be considered as a failure in Japan compared to Facebook’s success elsewhere. Though the Japanese site was translated free by volunteers, users complained that Facebook’s Japanese-language site was awkward to use. Japan’s own social networking sites and game portals like Mixi, Gree, and Mobage had more than 20 million users by then. And those sites even started to incorporate elements boasted by Facebook, such as allowing third-party developers to make apps for the sites, giving Japanese users little reason to switch.

Japan is a risk avoidance country: what Facebook got wrong

But the biggest part to Facebook’s failure in Japan was that the company did not understand, or did not care about, the trust levels needed in the Japanese market and its deep cultural differences in communication style. Many Japanese users kept their FB account open even though they didn’t use it. There were approximately 700 monthly searches in Japanese for “how to quit Facebook” as early as 2011.

Facebook’s security blunders: unacceptable in risk-averse Japan

Anonymity and online privacy are extremely important in Japan. Japanese users were suspicious of Facebook. Japanese sites let members mask their identities in distinct contrast to Facebook’s requirement to use a real name. Facebook seemed open, direct, and aggressive. Japanese web users, including popular bloggers, hid behind pseudonyms or nicknames which was crucial to Japan’s fiercely private internet usage. When Facebook revealed in 2018 that attackers stole data from 29 million user accounts — after the widely publicized Cambridge Analytica scandal that compromised the personal data of nearly 87 million — the Japanese government’s Personal Information Protection Commission, issued a statement requesting Facebook to better protect its users’ personal data.

Lack of privacy scares the Japanese

Japanese are less likely to disclose personal information in posts such as photos, videos, and user location. They feel that photo-tagging might be an invasion of privacy because photos can be seen by friends of friends who are considered strangers. Sponsored stories that are posted without the user’s permission were also a source of discomfort. And many didn’t care for the amount of aggressive marketing, spam, and unsolicited “flirty messages” they received from people they didn’t know. Hacked accounts were another problem. Hacked accounts didn’t happen on Mixi.

Japanese social norms don’t mesh with Facebook’s customs

Power distance, indicative of Japanese culture, comes into play with status posting. Sharing the same messages with younger and older friends, senior and junior coworkers, close friends and distant acquaintances at once doesn’t sit well with Japanese users. In addition, estranged acquaintances or ex-coworkers might be able to find users easily online by their real name and send them a friend request. While for foreigners, it may be easy to reject or ignore requests, for Japanese it can be uncomfortable to do so. Finally, many are worried that their own posts could be troublesome or annoying to others. (Gomewakuo kaku) Japanese tend to have a higher fear of negative appraisal and lower levels of self-disclosure.

Japan is high context culture

The Japanese traditionally prefer face to face communication as online conversing might cause more misunderstandings. Although 95% of Japanese ages 18-49 have had access to the internet over the past 10 years, Mixi (or any other social network) membership has always represented only about 25% of the population. Even the Facebook manager for Japan in 2012, Mr. Kodama, mentioned that the internet in Japan was not so closely connected with real society as in the US. Other community sites offered distance from real life that Facebook didn’t. According to a 2018 white paper by the Ministry of Affairs, 23.2% of Japanese users have experienced trouble from some sort of miscommunication or quarrel online. When not behind a pseudonym, this can become highly embarrassing.

The Japanese have lower trust levels than other countries

Across the board, both online and offline, the Japanese have lower trust levels than other countries, and this trust is on a declining trend. Recently the level of trust both online and offline is getting weaker in Japan. This translates to high skepticism toward companies and institutions. But companies can use this to their advantage by engaging online through direct conversation and social proof brand reviews. Most Japanese use open social media to seek information, much like a search engine, rather than a place to express themselves. Companies can learn how to harness social media properly in Japan to nurture trust with their Japanese market.

Use social media to build the social capital of employees

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, how much a company is trusted by its employees increases the overall advocacy for the company. Smart companies can use social platforms to engage and interest employees by setting social issues’ goals that empower employees and invite their input on social channels. This can build a relationship of trust through transparency with future employees which extends to consumers as well.

Social media platforms in Japan and the importance of demographics

Just because Facebook failed to sweep the entire population in Japan as it has in other countries, doesn’t mean other foreign social media platforms haven’t made an impact. But in Japan, the impact of different platforms can be felt across varying demographics. Both age, gender, and what is already popular affects the success of any particular social media platform in its particular market segment.

The rise of Twitter in Japan

In contrast to Facebook, Twitter experienced massive adoption in Japan. Twitter does not require users to reveal their identities and, like Facebook, allows users status updates so it makes Facebook somewhat obsolete. Also, reading Twitter in English is a very different experience from reading it in Japanese. In Japanese, much more can be said in just 140 characters. This makes Twitter more versatile for the Japanese market. By 2011, Twitter users numbered about 10 million in Japan compared to Facebook’s 2 million. Fast forward to 2018, Twitter’s 45 million active users in Japan are nearly double Facebook’s 28 million, and this is at an annual growth rate of 12.5 percent. Nearly 75% of all Japanese students and half of young professionals use Twitter weekly. Brands that target Generation Z and younger millennials can find their target audience on Twitter in Japan. Twitter also integrates into other forms of traditional media, such as radio and TV. Successful Japanese brands leverage this for cross-platform marketing campaigns.

Instagram rapidly gaining fandom in Japan

Instagram is currently the fastest growing social network in Japan with 9 million added users in 2018 alone. Instagram is highly visual and a good venue for marketing fashion, food, and entertainment. While Instagram’s Japanese user base is mostly young and female, older men are a growing demographic which could be due to the rise of automotive and entertainment brands entering the Instagram marketplace. Almost 50% of all Japanese students and young professionals use Instagram every week. 40 of the top 100 brands on Instagram in Japan are related to fashion, but food comes in at a close second.

The role of LINE in Japan

LINE has the highest usage rate of all social media platforms in Japan at about 60% compared to the mere 5.5% of Japanese who are active posters on Facebook, according to the Ministry’s white paper. LINE is a messenger app first and a social network second and most LINE activity is strictly in private and group chat rooms rather than on a timeline function. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be used by companies to develop relationships with customers. Once a LINE user adds your company’s account as a friend, they can receive promotions and discount offers. Companies can also send coupons via direct messages that can be redeemed at stores or websites. LINE offers any easy way to reach all demographics due to its wide user base.

So, who uses Facebook in Japan?

With 30 million users in 2019, Facebook in Japan is mostly older and male, with fewer young women in their teens and twenties who tend to flock to the flash of Twitter and Instagram. But there is rising use among young professionals. Some of the biggest brands include alcoholic beverages, travel and airlines, shopping malls, and job listing websites. What Facebook does excel at is ad targeting. Still, it’s kind of looked at as more of a “mature” social network. For this reason, high-end products, family-related goods, and even B2B products may find their audience on Facebook.

Entering the Japanese social media marketplace in 2019

Technology has changed a lot since the mid-2000s. In 2019, we have stronger processing power, more memory, faster wifi, and richer content. But what’s really changed dramatically, especially with the popularity of smartphones, is how easily people can access the internet. All internet-related businesses need to understand how to market to mobile devices effectively to give consumers a seamless online experience. Only companies that can do this stand a chance of winning the markets of 2019 and onward.

What companies can learn from Facebook’s failure in Japan

Companies that typically fail in Japan are those that may be hugely successful in their home market and think they can copy their success story by doing everything exactly the same in Japan. Btrax Senior Advisor, Hidemaru Sato, who has a track record as country manager for both Japanese companies in the US, and American companies in Japan, believes the answer lies with the country manager. It’s better to have a person who understands the culture and business of both countries. He says you can learn from the mistakes of other companies who fizzled out in Japan because they failed to understand cultural differences. While it’s true that you must think globally, doing locally is essential. There are many examples of companies that failed to do their homework on Japan and have paid the price. An example is eBay. eBay didn’t know what kind of auction-style would best suit a Japanese audience and lost out to Japan’s Yahoo! Auctions who knew how the Japanese liked to bid. New technologies will be applied to many consumer services and systems in Japan over the next few years. Companies that understand how Japanese consumers use tech can leverage these strengths to help them come out on top.

Capitalize on Japan’s love for the new and inventive

None of this is to say that the Japanese consumer base is too shy to try new services or products. Brand-adopting Japanese consumers are always on the lookout for the next innovative thing. Foreign companies coming to Japan can tap into the consumer base if they know how. But the biggest challenge is for foreign companies to be able to hire the right people to move the company forward while negotiating local regulations and workplace cultural differences. In Japan, that means being able to navigate the strata of management that tend to be in place at Japanese corporations.

Hire the right people

Scott Sugino, vice-chair of the ACCJ Foreign Direct Investment Committee, says that what this translates to for tech companies is that they will need a country manager, a sales team, and engineers. And it can be very difficult to find competent people to fill those positions who are also bilingual. However, for companies that do make the right appointments and decisions, Japan is a very good place to be. Incidentally, Facebook is now seeking a new Country Manager in Japan. Any takers?
Sources: Asiajin CNBC TechInAsia Reuters Ministry of International Affairs and Communications Nippon Japantimes Humblebunny Btrax JapanTimes SocialBakers

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