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The Problem with Facebook in Japan

Adam is a dedicated researcher about new media trends. He has been researching about online social networks since 2005.

The Japanese online community has always been known to value anonymity. Past research also shows that when compared with Westerners, Japanese tend to have a higher fear of negative appraisal and low levels of self-disclosure.

To explore how Japanese online behavior impacts Facebook adoption, we have conducted two focus group sessions with 18 Facebook members who prefer to use the local online social network service Mixi. Our findings indicated that the biggest concern among these users is Facebook’s real name policy.

However, when asked if they would start using Facebook again if anonymity were allowed, most of the participants noted their reluctance because communication in Japanese was more convenient on Mixi.

Methodology

The focus group sessions were held at a public university in Southern Japan on June 1st and June 10th (6 and 12 participants respectively). The study was announced to the students via email where the participation criteria was “having an experience of using Facebook in the past but not currently using it.” All of the participants were college students majoring in  International Relations or English and given an extra class credit for their participation.

Below is the summary of our findings from the focus group sessions:

1. Facebook lacks basics in Japan

Studies show that there are four major factors that impact online social network continuance, namely:

  • The platform is seen as more secure
  • The platform has a better user interface
  • The platform is perceived as more popular
  • The platform is seen as a good source of information
  • Sources/More readings: 1, 2, and 3

All of our participants agreed that Facebook is less secure, has a more complicated user interface, and is definitely not popular compared with Mixi (their preferred online social network). The users indicated that they prefer Twitter to gather information rather than Mixi or Facebook. Regarding the interface, participants evaluated Facebook as open, bold, and aggressive  – but also complicated and not “Japanese friendly.”

2. Real name policy is a problem, but not a huge deal

When asked if they stopped using FB because of its real name policy, a majority of the participants said yes. On the other hand, when we prompted if they would actively use Facebook if anonymity (kamei) were allowed, most of the respondents seemed reluctant. The respondents stated that Facebook was an international platform. To communicate with their Japanese friends, they saw Mixi as just enough, citing they see no additional value in Facebook. This is an interesting finding because all of the concerns users expressed about using Facebook were related with the real name policy.

3. The Risks of Using Facebook

a) Old friends, acquaintances, and co-workers can easily find them and ask to be friends. (For foreigners it might be easier to just reject the request but this seems very difficult in Japanese culture)

b) They might make a mistake when posting an update (One user mentioned how embarrassed she felt after wrongly posting a happy birthday message in English.)

c) Whatever they post on their walls might be irrelevant or bothersome to some of the members on the network.(Japanese are very concerned about not bothering others (Gomewakuo kaku)

d) Photo-tagging is an invitation for invasion of privacy. (They mentioned their uneasiness to use the tagging function because, even if that photo is seen by a friend of a friend, it still feels like a stranger is looking at their picture).

e) Sponsored stories without users permission is an invasion of privacy.

f) Facebook is an open door for spam and pushy marketing practices. (Users mentioned that they received a lot of spam and flirty messages from people they did not know. Some users also mentioned that their friends’ Facebook accounts were hacked and that this never happens on Mixi)

4. Additional Reasons why Facebook Goes Against Japanese Culture

(These are my personal observations and thoughts)

a) Japanese culture values harmony (remember the first sentence from each international marketing book about Japan (the nail that sticks out get hammered down). This makes it difficult to:

  • Switch to Facebook if the majority is not using it
  • Post forth an honest opinion that criticizes something or someone
  • Reject a friendship request or delete a member who is not active any more (e.g. it would be extremely rude in Japan if a new employee rejects his superiors Facebook friendship request)

b) Japan has the highest risk avoiding culture. This makes it difficult to:

  • Disclose personal information (posts, photos, videos, event organizing, user location). Less sharing means less page views, and that means less revenue for Facebook.
  • Make friends on online social networks

c) There is high power distance in Japan. This makes it difficult to

  • Share the same messages with senior co-workers, younger friends, close friends, acquaintances, and relatives at the same time.

d) Japan has a high need for escapism. This makes it difficult to:

  • Communicate on Facebook facing real people, real names.

e) Japan has a high-context culture. The Japanese traditionally prefer face to face communication as online conversing might cause more misunderstandings. Although 95% of Japanese ages 18-49s had access to the internet in the past 10 years, Mixi (or any other social network) membership has always been about 25%. In other words, unlike foreigners, the Japanese do not have a burning desire to maintain relationships online regardless of their friends’ geographic proximity.

Other possible indications

a) Currently there are about 700 monthly searches for “how to quit Facebook ” on Google (Source: Google Ad-words). Having 700 of such searches in Japanese isn’t too cool, especially when we have such a small group of Facebook users.

b) Although currently there are about 3.7 million Facebook users in Japan, the number of active users is expected to be lower than that:

  • There are two million registered foreigners who live in Japan which means only about 1.7 million of them are assumed to be on Facebook.
  • The Japanese have smaller friend networks and do not share much information, which we can assume they do not have to log in as frequently as the U.S counterparts. (source/more reading: 1 )
  • Many quitters do not cancel their Facebook account, for instance in our study 17 out of 18 users had kept their Facebook accounts even though they always used Mixi and did not like Facebook)

Conclusions

It seems clear that Facebook is not likely to pass a 10% user ratio (similar to Korea) because of the reasons explained above. However, this is still a pretty profitable situation for Facebook as the current 3.4 million Japanese users can bring substantial advertising dollars given that the total advertising expenditure is high in Japan.

Also, remember that last year Twitter made about three million dollars in Japan despite its lackluster financial performance in the U.S. On the other hand losing in Japan has some symbolic ramifications, since Japan would be the place where the astronomic FB growth would stop just like how the Ottomans stopped in Vienna or Alexander the Great got defeated in Egypt. In both cases the empires started to shrink…


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