International Business Strategies

Social Media in Japan

In Japan, social networks are key channels for finding—and keeping—loyal customers. Understanding each networks' nuances is critical to generating engagement and revenue.

Victoria Bloyer's avatar
Victoria Bloyer

November 10, 2015


These days, maintaining social media accounts for marketing and customer service is simply standard procedure for businesses. Increasingly, this strategy is a smart one—according to research, social media marketing increases brand exposure, builds an engaged fan-base, boosts website traffic, generates leads, and provides market insight.

Of course, this phenomenon—and the value it generates for businesses—extends far beyond English-speaking countries. But here’s the twist: Companies that want to grow globally, and wish to expand their online and social reach into new international markets, should be aware that not all social networks are created equal.

For instance: Facebook might generate lots of buzz in the U.S., but it’s a comparative dud in other countries. Meanwhile, networks that Westerners have never heard of are dominating key global markets.

If your company aims to grow globally, it must know its target markets, and—for lead gen and brand-building—must know their preferred social networks.

Today, we’ll look at Japan. It’s an evolving market where social networks play a dominant role in social interaction, and an important role in brand awareness.

Mobile and Social Media Use

Japan has a mobile Internet penetration rate of about 67%, which will increase to 73.5% by next year.

The love for mobile phones is seemingly hardwired into Japanese culture. Even before smartphones, Japan was a leader in cellphone technology, making super-advanced flip phones in the early 2000’s that could take pictures, download music and stream TV. These powerful devices could also be used to make electronic payments—features that took years to become commonplace beyond Japan.

Another popular feature of these earlier Japanese phones was Internet access. Years later, this popularity hasn’t changed with the shift to smartphones. Today, nearly half of Japanese people use smartphones to access the Internet. More compellingly, over 90% access some sort of social media on their smartphones.

Social media use is pervasive across all devices, too—not just mobile. According to a survey conducted by the Japanese Ministry of International Affairs and Communications, around 57% of the Japanese population accesses some sort of social media. The breakdown:

  • 76%—percentage of Japanese teens who use social media
  • 91%—percentage of Japanese social media users in their 20s
  • 80%—percentage in their 30s
  • 60%—percentage in their 40s

The numbers speak for themselves: Japanese residents are regularly on the Internet, on their smartphones, and getting social. But which social networks are most popular here? Let’s find out. (Hint: It’s not Facebook.)


LINE is a free social media application developed in 2011 by NHN Japan, the Japanese branch of South Korea-based company Naver. Much like Facebook, LINE can be used on a PC or as a mobile app. It’s a perfect fit for a culture that loves smartphones and uses them liberally—especially on long commutes on public transportation.

Being the dominant social media platform in Japan, LINE saw about 50 million registered Japanese users in 2014. Nearly half of Japanese Internet users reported using LINE that year. This year, that share rose to 57.5%, keeping LINE the most dominant social media force in Japan.

LINE users are spread evenly across gender lines and age groups. The majority of users are either full-time workers (38%) or part-time workers or housewives (30%). Another 20% are students. This means having a social presence on LINE grants access to market to a broad range of demographics—especially to users with considerable purchasing power.

Some highlights of LINE’s functionality: Like other social media platforms, it has a homepage with a timeline feature. It allows users to send private messages, share pictures, movies, music, voice recordings, and GPS location. It also supports group messages (for up to 200 contacts), as well as posting on message boards. Users can also make voice and video calls via the service, at no cost.

A super-popular feature is LINE’s “sticker shop,” where users can download, often for free, virtual stickers to send to their friends. These messages are often accompanied by cute emojis. (Facebook implemented a similar feature in 2013.) Stickers exist for special events, and usually feature famous cartoon and movie characters. Reportedly, 1 billion stickers are sent on LINE every day.

A promising feature for business use: LINE provides an official B2C account feature. Much like “verified” or “brand” accounts on other networks, businesses can communicate with, and market directly to, engaged LINE users. Sharing news, promos, and sales announcements is common.

While LINE has a lot in common with other social media platforms, what makes this network unique is that these features are seamlessly integrated into one online environment. (The cute stickers and emojis are a bonus.)

If your company is eyeing the Japanese market for expansion, there’s no question it should maintain a marketing presence on LINE.

Twitter, Facebook, and Other Networks

Twitter is Japan’s second most-popular network, used by 36.6% of the country’s social media users in 2015. Interestingly, this user base has decreased over the past year, down from 41.9% in 2014.

Facebook experienced a similar slip last year. It may be the world’s No. 1 social media platform, but Facebook ranks third in Japan—used by only 34.7% of social media users. That’s down from 39.9% in 2014.

What’s causing the low overall penetration, and recent drop, in this popular Western network? We believe it has much to do with Facebook’s (easily circumvented) policy that requires users to use their real names. This is off-putting to many Japanese, who value their privacy and prefer social media platforms like LINE and Twitter, which allow them to preserve their anonymity.

Two other networks, Skype and Google Plus, are each used by 11.4% of Japanese social media users. And again, that is after a 5% to 6% drop since 2014.

The biggest decline, however, can be seen with mixi, a Japan-only social network that once ruled the scene. Last year, it was more popular than Skype and Google+, with nearly 20% of users still loyal to the platform. This year, it’s dropped to 10% as many users abandon it for the more popular options.

A new contender—coming in with a 10% user base—is Instagram, the popular Western photo-sharing social media app. The longtime Japanese love of phone-cameras is apparent with Instagram’s emerging success.

The Takeaway

Social media platforms are obviously valuable tools to build relationships, and communicate, with your customer base. But understanding the nuances of each market—and which social channels they prefer—will go a long way in generating engagement and revenue.

As with a home improvement project, conduct research on which tools you should ideally use (in this case, which social media platforms to utilize) before you begin that expansion project. This research should also extend to any partners or vendors you might employ to realize your vision. Sometimes it’s best to just ask someone who knows.

The same can be said for your international social media strategy, or any strategy: Do your homework, and check with the experts.

Victoria Bloyer's avatar
Victoria Bloyer

November 10, 2015


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