The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

For a country that adopted cell phones well ahead of many others, Japan’s passion for social media is hardly surprising. But what might surprise some from the otherwise buttoned-up nation is the creativity that social media has unleashed.

From Shiseido’s “gotcha” video clip of high school girls revealed as boys to Nissan’s “Intelligent Parking Chairs” that move back into position with a handclap, Japan’s marketers are having plenty of fun with the new medium. But as the nation readies itself to face the global spotlight at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, can social media help encourage a new spirit of openness?


Helped by the younger adopters, Japan’s social media networks have rapidly gained in popularity, particularly in the wake of the devastating 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, when social media played a key role in aiding disaster relief.

The biggest of all Japan’s social media networks is Line, a mobile messaging app that came of age during the disaster and now boasts some 50 million monthly active users. Line has grown rapidly by offering an increasing range of features, from free voice and video calls to mobile games and discount coupons.

“Line has been successful by integrating every feasible service into their platform, from mobile games to electronic payment services and taxis. As soon as there’s a somewhat feasible business idea, they attempt to integrate it very quickly, which has been key to their success,” says Mike Sunda, communications strategist at digital marketing agency MullenLowe Profero in Tokyo.

Similar to Line, Twitter also made its mark during the March 11 disasters and has grown to 35 million monthly active users, making it the nation’s second-largest social media network. From Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has exchanged pleasantries with Indian leader Narendra Modi via Twitter, to pop stars, celebrities, and corporate brands, the online social networking service has continued to rack up new usage records in one of its major markets.

“From the beginning, Twitter was embraced in Japan in a way it wasn’t in the West, simply due to the format. In English, 140 characters basically allows you to type out what you had for breakfast, but in Japan it’s almost a mini-essay,” Sunda says.

Twitter’s Kaori Saito highlights successful promotions including one by Kirin, which gave away six packs of Kirin Tanrei Green Label beer in a Twitter campaign that reached an estimated 4.7 million users. Film distributor Toho-Towa also raised awareness of the Hollywood movie Furious 7 through a competition offering free gasoline. It helped box office sales climb by 70 percent compared to the previous release in the series.

Third-ranked Facebook’s 23 million monthly active users also makes it worth paying attention to in Japan, where it has gained a growing business audience, contrasting with the traditional white-collar audience of LinkedIn in the West.

The rise of Line, Twitter, and Facebook has come at the expense of previous local favorite Mixi, which put the focus on privacy with most users anonymous.

“Facebook was originally quite new and scary for many Japanese in that you’re out there in the world for everyone to see. But after 2011, you could argue there was a collective psychological shift where interconnectedness became more valued,” says MullenLowe Profero’s Sunda.

Facebook’s Kumiko Hidaka highlights successful business campaigns, including Panasonic’s “Beautiful Japan towards 2020” video ad campaign to raise awareness of its sponsorship of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Instagram, a service for sharing photos and videos, was acquired by Facebook in 2012. It has also grown rapidly in Japan, where it had 8 million monthly active users as of June 2015.

The rise of social media has sparked a rush by companies to jump on the bandwagon, but there are plenty of traps for the unwary, experts caution.

Tetsuya Honda, managing director of public relations and marketing agency BlueCurrent Japan, says the advertising-centered mindset of much of the local industry has proved problematic.

“Japan is a country where paid advertising has historically been king of communications, and communications workers are used to using paid media and non-interactive communications. But if a social media campaign or website is not designed in a conversation-friendly way, nothing will happen, even if the company invests a lot of money,” Honda says.

Robert Heldt, president of Custom Media KK, publisher of The Journal, says companies need to be careful before engaging any external consultant to run their online presence.

“When search engine optimization first became a big thing, anyone with a computer claimed they could get your website on the first page of Google, and social media is the same. Before engaging a social media consultant, check their background and track record and make sure they understand the local market; otherwise there’s no point in trusting them with your valuable brand,” Heldt says.

“The other issue is that companies sometimes think social media is an intern’s job, because they don’t place a lot of importance on the role. That’s very wrong, as while millennials may understand social media, trusting your company messaging to an intern who probably doesn’t know your business well is very risky. The damage to your reputation could be enormous.”

MullenLowe Profero’s Sunda says bad social media is the same in Japan as it is anywhere else: “social media that misrepresents the brand, that talks at users rather than attempting to engage with them, and that doesn’t provide any value with its content.”

The return on investment question is also being raised in Japan, with Meltwater’s Joseph Latteri pointing to the need to set attainable goals and to choose the right influencers for any paid campaign.

Kenneth Grossberg, former marketing professor at Waseda University, says social media will continue to pick up speed in Japan—albeit perhaps at a slower pace than in the West.

“Print media is definitely dying as a profitable channel, but it will continue in certain older demographic segments more than others,” he says.

“Young people are easier to reach through their mobile phone, without question. For older people, it’s a mix—some use their mobile a lot too, but many just watch the big screen [TV]. That will change, but it won’t change as radically as elsewhere.”

Meltwater’s Latteri says Japan has come a long way in adopting major social media platforms, but marketers need to be braver in challenging convention.

“In social media you have to be willing to make mistakes in order to succeed, but this is something that goes against most risk-averse Japanese companies’ traditional way of marketing. Marketers in Japan should not be afraid to try new strategies and approaches to find what resonates best with their brand community,” he says.

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games fast approaching, BlueCurrent Japan’s Honda suggests social media could play a key role in overcoming barriers between so-called “Galapagos Japan” and the rest of the world.

“One of the hottest topics in Japan is how to connect to non-Japanese people regarding inbound business opportunities and those coming to Japan. Social media has no country borders, and the technology is going to help breach the language barrier, which has been our biggest obstacle,” Honda says.

A borderless Japan? While social media is far from conquering all barriers, its rise might prove timely with the world soon knocking on the nation’s door.

Anthony Fensom is a communication consultant/writer with experience in Australian/Asian financial and media industries, including six years in Tokyo.
After 2011, you could argue there was a collective psychological shift where interconnectedness became more valued.