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Facebook and Japan finally friend each other

The social media giant is gaining traction in the Far East, suggesting that Japanese online culture is shifting away from secrecy and anonymity.


Facebook has always been a fringe player in Japan’s social networking culture. As of one year ago, according to analytics site Socialbakers, about 2% of Japan’s online population was registered on Facebook, compared with roughly 60% in the United States. Homegrown sites like Mixi, GREE and Mobage-town have dominated the sector, each counting a user base in excess of 20 million—about 10 times greater than Facebook’s January 2011 totals. And according to a recent report from comScore, Japan is the only market where Twitter is more popular than Mark Zuckerberg’s juggernaut.

There are many reasons why Facebook has started slow in Japan, but perhaps the most resounding is that its competitors offer their customers a highly prized shield of anonymity. Japanese people typically don’t divulge their real names on the web, instead opting for pseudonyms that allow them to freely express themselves without fear of reproach. For instance, in a survey of Japanese mobile users by Tokyo-based MMD Laboratory, 89% of respondents said they were reluctant to reveal their names online.

But after several years of growing pains, Facebook is finally gaining traction in the Far East, suggesting that online behaviour in Japan is shifting toward a Zuckerbergian culture of sharing, transparency and personal connection.

In the last year alone, Facebook membership has more than tripled, including a flood of 2.6 million new users in the final half of 2011. Last month’s comScore report showed that Facebook pulled ahead of Mixi in monthly unique visitors, second only to Twitter, though Japanese people are spending twice as long on their Facebook accounts as they are tweeting.

So why are the Japanese finally embracing Facebook?

There’s certainly an element of people starting to “get it.” In the summer, a website called Facebook navi was launched. The site dubs itself the world’s first navigation site for Facebook, and helps Japanese users understand basic features of the social networking site, such as pages, applications and creating events.

That might sound laughable to a Western audience that uses Facebook with ease, but according to Asiajin, a blog about Asian Internet trends, Japanese people have found Facebook’s user interface confusing. Even though Facebook navi is a third-party website, Facebook has no problem with it, and for good reason: Facebook navi’s own page on the social network has more than 1.2 million followers.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of Japanese institutions are using pages to communicate with people in an open format.

For example, Keisuke Hiwatashi, the mayor of Takeo City, replaced the city’s website with a Facebook page in November. “When people give their opinions or ask questions, they should take responsibility for this as adults, and this should be done using their real names,” said Hiwatashi at an August press conference. Years earlier, when he worked at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Hiwatashi started threads on an anonymous board and found them wholly unconstructive, leading to his preference for a real-name system with accountability.

The social benefits of Facebook are also echoed by Yuki Yasuda, a Kansai University professor who specializes in social network analysis. Speaking with The Daily Yomiuri, she said it is “time to rethink excessive protection of personal information.”

“By disclosing personal information, it will be easier for people to obtain the trust of others, which enables them to moderately connect with each other. After the March 11 disaster, it has become a trend for people to attach more emphasis on such bonds,” said Yasuda, referring to last year’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed thousands.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter became key lines of communication when mobile and landline networks were jammed. Facebook, Twitter and Mixi all received major traffic bumps that month, according to comScore’s December report, which measured the total number of unique visitors to social networks per month. While all three suffered a traffic dip once the situation settled, Facebook and Twitter eventually regained their upward momentum, whereas Mixi’s traffic has stagnated. It should be noted, however, that comScore’s report didn’t measure mobile traffic, which Mixi claims is a big part of its traffic base.

Still, Mixi’s problems go beyond comScore’s methodology. Some Japanese users find the service dated. Mixi was founded in 2004 on the heels of Friendster’s success, and recent upgrades on the site largely copy Facebook features, such as “liking” things, photo uploads and company pages. But in what’s been widely interpreted as a move to stifle Facebook’s ascent, Mixi and Twitter announced a strategic partnership in late November to jointly develop new products and services.

Another boon for Facebook is that Japanese users are realizing that some modicum of anonymity is still possible on the site. It’s not uncommon for Japanese Facebook users to shield their identities through false profile photos or usernames. There’s also a portion of the online population that maintains a tight-lipped Facebook account as well as an escapist Mixi account, where, to cite one example, you can pose as an 88-year-old hailing from the town of “Christmas.”

Media reports have also credited The Social Network for last year’s upswing. The film spent two weeks at the top of the Japanese box office and Japan was the film’s highest-grossing international market. Zuckerberg might be less than enthused with his portrayal in the film, but he can thank David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin for drumming up support in what’s arguably Facebook’s most stubborn market.

Depending on the source, the percentage of Japan’s online population registered on Facebook ranges from 6% to low double-digits, compared with majority percentages in some Western countries. That means plenty of headroom for growth. The coming year will reveal whether Facebook’s current pace is sustainable, or whether the two-headed attack from Twitter and Mixi proves too powerful.