The Japanese Social Media Perspective

A colleague and I recently visited the Belgian branch of a Japanese company to give a talk about our services. We had an interesting discussion about dealing with the press – which involved our research from 2009 – and we also spoke about social media. But not for long: “The management in Japan don’t allow us to use social media,” was the basic reason, “Not at all.”

I had heard this before from European employees of Japanese multinationals. Unfortunately, at moments like these I forget to ask “Why?” So it’s time to investigate…

The answer doesn’t appear to be a very simple one. It’s not because social media doesn’t exist or isn’t popular in Japan. On the contrary, social networking sites like Mixi and Gree have tens of millions of users, YouTube is extremely popular, and people blog about life all the time. Twitter is also growing rapidly – some 13% of Japanese internet users already have a Twitter account. It’s only Facebook that is really struggling to get off the ground. According to recent figures, the number of users fluctuates, and there are currently around two million – just a tenth of the figure for Mixi, for example.

Facebook’s limited popularity could be related to social habits. Lots of Japanese people are reported to struggle with the openness with which most Facebook users set their preferences, so that other people are then equally open with their comments. That is not done in Japan, where relationships between different individuals are much more complex, and are generally more “reserved”. This isn’t a problem on the other social networking sites mentioned above for the simple reason they can use a pseudonym, so they don’t have to expose their real identity.

According to experts, this shows how stifling the social structure is: give the people a chance to have their say anonymously and you will suddenly hear a very different story. This goes some way to explaining anonymous abuse that appears in comments sections on newspaper sites…

Preferably anonymous

If Japanese people are only active on social media sites when they can be anonymous, it goes without saying that it’s very difficult to be active as a company. Social media relies on personal input from its users, and it’s perhaps quite intimidating to post comments as a company on networks where consumers can have their say anonymously and avidly.

Preferably risk-free

Other people believe there is another reason why Japanese companies have difficulties with social media. In Japanese business culture, a lot of importance is attached to quality assurance, and they try to avoid as many risks as possible. There is a sophisticated process set up for pretty much every action, which is very different from the impulsive nature of most social media activities. If you have to discuss a click on a “like” button with your boss, it becomes a very slow process.

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