“The Japanese market is very unique” – It’s something I have heard many times in my career and yes, some international firms have tried and failed to enter this “very unique” market – such as Ford’s failing to compete in Japan (commenting, “it’s a closed market” ), Forever 21’s exit from the Japanese market in 2019, and Walmart’s intention to list Seiyu, one of the biggest Japanese supermarket chains acquired wholly by Walmart in 2008, after failing to gain traction against other Japanese competitors.
However, I have also seen many international businesses successfully land in Japan despite the difficulty. McDonald’s Japan was founded in 1971 and is everywhere in Japan now. Starbucks too – you can find Starbucks Coffee easily all around the country, especially in urban areas. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are also plenty of international financial companies operating in Japan, such as Goldman Sachs, UBS, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, Citi, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Tech companies have succeeded too. Apple products are incredibly popular. Statistics say that the top 10 most popular devices in Japan are all iPhones, and digital nomads all over the country use Macbooks in coffee shops when they work remotely. Amazon is another success story. Amazon is growing quickly and competing with Rakuten, Japan’s own e-commerce retail tech giant. Other tech success stories include Google, the No. 1 search engine in Japan, and surprisingly, Slack too, which was pretty popular in the Japanese tech community even before they started localization. Finally, even though Uber struggled and eventually gave up entering the Japanese market largely because of taxi industry regulations, UberEats has been gaining traction and you can see bicyclists with UberEats bags zipping around nearly 24 hours a day.
My point is that while there are certain concepts that you need to understand to dominate this 10 trillion-dollar GDP sized market, if you take these points into account then it is possible to acquire customers and produce great results for your business. Here, we will introduce the landscape of Japanese web-based stats and my experience in the industry, so that you will have a better understanding when planning your digital marketing strategy in Japan.
As mentioned above, the iPhone is incredibly popular in Japan and this is important for your digital marketing strategy because of how users’ tech environment (such as device, OS, browser, or average internet speed) affects the way users see your website or app. Knowing who your users are and what sorts of tech they are using will help you make the right decision for your digital marketing and design strategy.
According to a recent survey published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications on tech devices, in which they asked 40,000+ households about their devices and internet usage, the results were that around 83% of Japanese people have a smartphone. That is greater than laptops, which 69% of Japanese people own.
In the chart above, the red line labeled “スマートフォン” shows smartphone users, the blue line labeled “パソコン” shows laptop/PC users and the Yellow line shows all mobile devices, including smartphones and flip phones (yes, they still exist!). The Purple line shows tablets, which you can see is also growing, and the Grey line labeled “固定電話” shows landline phones, which you can see is gradually decreasing. “令和元年” is 2019.
Though more and more people have mobile devices, people use desktop computers too. Statcounter, a website that displays various kinds of technology environments worldwide, shows that desktop users are more common in Japan, as shown below.
So, which should you target: desktop or mobile devices? I’d say it depends on your main channel and your target audience. If your business is for consumers and if the main channel is search engines, around 80% of your traffic would be mobile users. If you are targeting businesses, you may have a higher % of desktop PC users. It is best to build a responsive website for both desktop and mobile (and if possible, for tablets too!) so that you don’t need to worry.
Are most of the mobile users in Japan Android or iOS users? If your business owns a mobile native app, this is especially important – because the app development process is different depending on the operating system. You might want to start with an iOS app or an Android app first to test the Japanese market, not develop both at the same time – because developing two apps takes more time and you don’t want to spend too much time before test marketing. If so, which app should you develop first? Well, I generally recommend iOS.
NTT Docomo, one of the largest mobile network operators in Japan (imagine a Japanese version of AT&T), released a white paper of mobile phone usage in 2020. They asked how they use their mobile devices and what devices they use. They found that 54% of respondents used Android devices, while 45% used iPhones.
Another stat we should consider looking at is the mobile OS market share in Japan. As you can see below, iOS has always been more than 60%, whereas Android was around 30 – 40% in 2020.
I have been analyzing different kinds of websites with Google Analytics, and have never seen a case where there were more Android users than iOS users. Usually, more than 60% of mobile traffic is from iOS users and less than 40% is from Android users. Because the data provided by NTT and Statcounter says “it’s almost half” or “iOS is far greater,” and because I have seen websites with more than 60% iOS users, I generally recommend iOS first on mobile to be safe.
As a web developer or web marketer, you want to make sure that your website won’t look buggy – but it happens sometimes, depending on the browser. Is there anything we should consider when choosing a browser? Well, be careful with Internet Explorer.
Chrome and Safari are the most popular browsers in Japan. However, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, and Firefox are also quite popular. The stats from Statcounter show that Chrome and Safari are the most popular browsers in Japan – you can see IE, Firefox, and Edge Legacy trail far behind.
However, if you focus only on the most popular desktop browsers in Japan, you can see that IE is the 2nd most popular browser after Chrome. If you are building a website optimized for Chrome and Safari, usually it will look fine on Firefox and Edge but will tend to look buggy on Internet Explorer because it fails to render some codes and scripts correctly, since Microsoft ended their support of them. Therefore, it is better to be careful with Internet Explorer in Japan.
Speed improvement sounds like a simple thing, but it is not easy to measure the exact improvement. The speed differs based on many factors such as user location, device, bandwidth, etc. Of course, you should try to improve the speed of your website or app generally, but knowing the typical internet speed in Japan can help you decide how much you should worry about this.
According to a Connectivity Report published by Akamai, an American content delivery network (CDN) service provider, in the first quarter of 2017 (the most trustworthy and the latest one, unfortunately), the global average connection speed was 7.2 Mbps and Japan was ranked 8th overall, with 20.2 Mbps connection speed. This is slower than some countries such as South Korea, Norway, Sweden, and Hong Kong, but faster than Denmark and the United States. This means that internet speed in Japan is generally faster than in many other countries, but not amazingly fast.
Introduction to search engines in Japan
Depending on your business and target audience, search engines can be a great source for customer acquisition. There are actions and strategies you can consider for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), such as creating and maintaining content, getting backlinks from authoritative websites, removing broken links to maintain internal links, etc. The basics of SEO are the same regardless of where you are – “Content Is King.” However, there are certain other points you can take into consideration for digital marketing strategies in Japan.
Search Engine Share
In short, Google dominates the Japanese search engine market, but one unique thing here is that Yahoo! Japan is still relatively popular, despite Yahoo! no longer being popular worldwide, since it has kept losing market share to Google and so was acquired by Verizon in 2017. But that is not the end of the story. Below, you can see that Google still covers 92% of the search engine market share, with 2% for Bing, and 1.5% for Yahoo globally in 2020.
However, compare that to Japan in 2020. You can see that Yahoo! Japan still controls 17-18% of the market whereas Google still controls 77%. Therefore, if you take that into account and optimize your website for Google and Yahoo, you should be able to cover more than 95% of searches in Japan.
So the question is, what do we need to do to optimize websites specifically for Yahoo! Japan, not only for Google? In short, don’t worry and just focus on Google. Yahoo! Japan and Google are in partnership and Yahoo! Japan has been utilizing Google’s search engine algorithm since 2010, so most search results are the same, except for some Yahoo-related services such as Yahoo! Shopping (just like you see Google Shopping on Google). So generally, if you get the 1st rank in Google, you should get the same on Yahoo! Japan too. Also, Yahoo! Japan doesn’t have tools like Search Console, so you cannot submit a sitemap – literally, you don’t have to do anything for Yahoo! Japan.
However, if it’s search ads, I recommend running a test in both Google and Yahoo!. This is because you may have a chance to acquire conversions more cheaply in Yahoo!, depending on your industry.
The basics of keyword research and content marketing are not so different between English and Japanese – the most highly recommended tool is Google’s Keyword Planner here in Japan too. You just need to check keyword and phrase volumes to identify how people are searching in Google and then publish content targeting the keywords or phrases you choose.
However, in practice, we recommend asking Japanese professional SEO marketers to research keywords since how people search slightly differs depending on their language and culture.
For example, when you are looking for the best Izakaya (Japanese dining bar) in Tokyo, you may search for:
- “Best Izakaya in Tokyo”
- “Highly Rated Izakaya in Tokyo”
- “Affordable Izakaya in Tokyo”
Whereas Japanese users would search:
- “居酒屋 東京 (Izakaya Tokyo)”
- “居酒屋 人気’（Izakaya popular）”
- “居酒屋 安い (Izakaya cheap)”
There are two points to note here.
- Groupings of keywords or phrases. In English, users are more likely to search with phrases, not a group of two or three keywords. In Japanese, users are more likely to search with a group of two or three keywords.
- Connotations. In English, “cheap” has a slightly negative meaning that implies “low quality and bad” whereas “affordable” does not. In Japanese, “安い” (“cheap”) doesn’t have a connotation of “low quality or bad,” so people don’t mind searching for a place with the phrase “Izakaya cheap.” Unprofessional or non-Japanese SEO marketers may use “お得” or “手頃” as the term for “affordable” since it’s the direct translation of “affordable,” but both of them have almost no search volume – so you will earn almost no traffic. This is the same for “highly rated” because, if it was translated directly, it might be “高評価,” but Japanese users don’t use that term. Instead, they use “人気 ‘,” (“popular”) because Japanese people have the notion that popular places should be highly rated places, and “人気” requires slightly less typing than “高評価.”
It is easy for Japanese SEO marketers to identify keywords taking those points into account, but it may not be as intuitive for non-Japanese SEO marketers, because these points require a sense of Japanese wording and phrases, in addition to knowledge of Japanese culture which could require years of living in Japan.
Social Network Sites
The social network landscape is somewhat similar and somewhat different. Many globally popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, are popular in Japan. On the other hand, Line, a Japanese app similar to WhatsApp, is much more popular across Japan than other social network apps or websites. Below shows research on social network usage from 2016 – 2019 from Gaiax, a tech company focusing on social network management.
※As of Jan 20th, they have not published 2020 version yet. I will update this chart as soon as they published the latest report.
Given the fact that around 125 million people are living in Japan, around 65% of Japanese people are active on Line – far more than any other social network site. Twitter has the second largest user base in Japan, and it is the most popular non-Japanese social platform. Regarding the other big American apps, Instagram is getting more and more popular among young people, but Facebook seems to be on the decline.
If you want to try advertisements on these platforms, it is recommended to identify what website you should target based on your industry and tests. Continue monitoring performance indicators like Cost Per Acquisition and/or Return On Investment, and then compare this by platforms so you can find the best way to acquire customers. The user base can be a good indicator in terms of understanding the number of potential customers, but ultimately you need to figure out which one works best for you by testing continuously.
While there are certain aspects of the Japanese digital landscape which are quite different from other countries, it is also similar to many global trends. With a basic understanding of digital marketing and knowledge of those unique points, it is certainly doable to run a campaign, acquire customers, and dominate this market as other global tech companies have done.
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