Facebook, as they did with the German and the Spanish language, asked the Japanese Facebook users to translate its site into Japanese and gathered 1,375 volunteers (as of May 19) to contribute working on the translation. Today, after more than 30,000 translations have been submitted, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, came to Japan and announced that they would launch the Japanese language version of Facebook.

Facebook has not been so popular among Japanese Internet users. One of the reasons would be the language barrier; Japanese people are notoriously poor at English. So, after breaking down this barrier with the translation work, will Facebook start to gain popularity in Japan as they did in Germany and Spain? I don’t think so, unless Facebook understands the peculiarities of the Japanese Internet culture.

Here are 3 things Facebook needs to do in order to succeed in Japan.

1. Go Mobile

Japanese mobile phones are one of the most advanced devices in the world with the PakeHou service (you can connect to the Internet as much as you like with the monthly fixed payment), high-quality photo function, fast Internet connection, DecoMe (decorated mail), and many other cool functions. Mixi, the No.1 SNS in Japan with more than 14 million users, gained around 40% of its revenue from the mobile version in the 1st quarter this year. There are many other popular mobile sites which we should pay attention to, but I will discuss them the other time.

2. Add Diary Function

It may sound odd, but Japanese people(especially young ones) REALLY like to write diaries. They want to share their daily lives with their friends through diaries, no matter how boring they may be, and many of their friends are kind enough to make comments on them. Plus, a diary can be so addictive. Many young people get so addicted that some of them check their comment updates every 10 minutes.

3. Add Mini Games

Japan has been proud of its game culture. Japanese game developers have created so many high-quality games which became popular all over the world, such as the Final Fantasy series, the Metal Gear Solid series. However, it was not only these 3D super high-quality games that have proven popular in Japan. Small, easy-to-play games, especially on mobile phones have greatly been successful as well. Mobagei(モバゲー), the No.1 mobile mini-game site in Japan with over 10 million users, offers more than 100 mobile games and keeps attracting more and more users. Mixi also integrated Picomiku(mini-game applications) into its user profile pages. Japanese people, especially those who live in urban cities like Tokyo, often use public transportation like buses and trains, with a mobile phone in one hand to kill time by playing these mini-games.

Above are 3 main things. Here I have one more interesting bonus suggestion, although I am not sure if it will work.

4. Add Infrared Data Exchange Function

Almost every single mobile phone in Japan has an infrared data exchange function, and many young people, when they meet someone for the first time, exchange their e-mail addresses and phone number using this infrared function, instead of swapping their business cards as their parents used to do. It takes less than 30 seconds and is so convenient that sometimes we forget to remember the person’s name because we rely too much on this function. So, if we could exchange our Facebook accounts using this infrared function, not just our e-mail addresses and phone numbers, it would be much much easier for us to make new friend connections, and also for Facebook to spread virally and quickly in Japan. I’m not sure if this will work, but it’s worth thinking.

These are the 3(+1) tips which I think Facebook should consider about from a young avid user’s perspective. Internet is cultural, and just because they are successful in the US and other places doesn’t mean they can also succeed in Japan. I do hope more and more people can correctly understand the Japanese culture and create interesting, useful services in Japan.


Dr. Gang Lu - Founder of TechNode. He's a Blogger, a Geek, a PhD and a Speaker, with passion in Tech, Internet and R'N'R.

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  1. I think one exception, and topic, that you did not bring up is that there are a substantial amount of Japanese looking to connect with foreigners here – either with their friends, meeting new people, or for networking. And currently MySpace, Facebook, and Asoboo are the only main networks where this can happen. If Mixi had an English version of their interface they would be listed too – but they don’t. At this point I think Facebook will become the strongest to take over the users in this segment of people.

    Plus, I went to the Facebook Developer Garage event held here in Tokyo this week, and the turn out was quite strong – about 150-200 people. And, except for a few foreigners, everyone there was Japanese.

    I know Facebook will not take over Mixi in a couple of months, but I do think they stand to capture quite a bit of new sign ups.

  2. Hi, Christophe

    Re. your comment, I have a question: that is, How to overcome the language barrier between Japanese and English (or other ones)? On current SNS’s, main communication format is still text, and I don’t not know many JP people who regularly post English messages to Twitter or any blog… Is there any good translation app out there that’s adequate enough to use… I mean eg. Google Translate is NOT good enough.

  3. Hi, Christophe

    Thank you for sharing your idea. I agree with you that many of those who want to have foreign friends go to Facebook or MySpace. But did you know that a lot of foreign people who are interested in or like Japan have Mixi accounts and quite a lot of communications are being made between Japanese people and foreign people in Mixi, in both Japanese and English.

    I went to the event, too, and was surprised that a lot of Japanese developers are interested in Facebook at such an early phase. I sent a message to Mark Zuckerberg asking how they will try to succeed in the Japanese SNS market and he said that Facebook will count on these developers for creating many interesting apps such as diary apps and mini-game apps which suit the Japanese culture.

  4. hsakawa, you are correct. Currently machine translation (such as Google Translate) is far off from being perfect for lots of text. I think it really comes down to the people right now and their own foreign language skills – either writing in Japanese, English, or both. As for twitter, if your audience is Japanese, you are probably going to post in the language that your audience can read. But if you are using Facebook and you are a Japanese speaker who has a lot of foreign friends, I am assuming you would try to communicate with them in English, or, simple Japanese that they can read depending on their JP language level.

    Takuya, I do know about Mixi and have an account myself. But I think the main barrier with Mixi is that Japanese is really hard to read and write (due to Kanji). And I think it is this barrier that prevents a lot of foreigners from using Mixi more often (and the new rule that you need a mobile phone in Japan to create an account). I think there are a lot of people in Japan who are wanting to connect with more people on an international level – whether it is with foreigners that they know within Japan or outside of the country, for friendship, or for business – and this is going to result in a lot of people signing up.

    And I think Mark Zuckerberg’s response is true to a certain extent. The Facebook platform is really powerful for developers/businesses, and is well known everywhere in the web community. And I do think that having applications created by JP devs will help localize Facebook and add to the appeal for Japanese users.

    My last note too is that I don’t want to place emphasis on just JP users that are looking to connect with foreigners. This was just an example of one group that I think will be joining even more now. I think there are some JP users that would be interested to try out Facebook now that it has been translated… hence the large group of free translation labor that Facebook got. It’s really amazing that they did not have to pay for translation at all!! I mean the scale of the translation group alone says a lot about the interest in using Facebook in Japanese.

  5. interesting suggestions Takuya san. I keep seeing more and more Japanese friends connecting to me on Facebook. But most of them are Japanese living abroad. Twitter used to have a lot of Japanese people even before the Japanese version was launched. I think as long as the UI is not too complex, Japanese people don’t mind using English web service.

  6. I think one thing you could add to your list would be applications. Mixi doesn’t have nearly the number or range of applications FB has, not to mention the ease with which they can be added to your page.

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