by Michael O'Neill
December 11th, 2012

According to GlobalWebIndex’s Social Engagement Benchmark report, released last month, Japan was ranked as the world’s least engaged market in terms of online social engagement. This may come as a shock to outside observers who see Japan as a digitally switched-on market and who naturally presume high levels of online engagement.

To some extent, the report’s findings are fair. Its top-line findings point that the high income (top 25%) group in China lead the world in social engagement, followed by Indonesia and India, while the least socially active are 55 to 64- year olds in Japan. Neither of these assertions — that emerging markets lead the world in social engagement, or that Japanese aged 55 and older are the least socially active — are surprising.

After all, social media is much more part of the internet experience in emerging markets and is less integrated into daily use in mature markets such as Japan. A recent ad:tech Tokyo conference came to a similar conclusion, pointing out that the first internet experience in emerging markets tends to occur on mobile or social media. Similarly, that seniors are the least engaged demographic is hardly groundbreaking, and given Japan’s higher proportion of seniors within the overall population compared to other markets, it is understandable that this demographic impacts the overall engagement figures for Japan.

But what the report fails to account for is both the somewhat unique nature of online engagement in Japan and the speed with which new forms of social media have gripped Japanese consumers over the past two years.

Without digging too deep into the report’s methodology, there is an argument to be made that it fails to account for cultural differences between markets. For instance, while Japan is technologically advanced, boasting high internet and mobile penetration, internet users in Japan have traditionally been accustomed to anonymity. This can be observed on indigenous social platforms Mixi and DeNA’s Mobage (a social gaming website), where sharing names or personal info is optional and most times limited to a nickname. DeNA even goes as far as prohibiting personal information on its social games. Japan is still very cautious about the use of personal information online; Japanese people know they lack social literacy, and are aware of their tendency to try to over-protect themselves. Accordingly, when it comes to online communication they feel uneasy due to perceived vulnerability.

In addition, while GlobalWebIndex’s report cites that users in emerging markets are more likely to share images, videos, and voice their opinion on products or brands, Weber Shandwick Tokyo recently drafted a release for a client indicating just the opposite in Japan: for cultural reasons users hesitate to share merely for the sake of it, and are rather selective and reserved in their online social interaction.

The recent increased popularity and familiarity with disclosing personal information on social media is also a phenomenon worth mentioning. Interest in social media grew exponentially after the March 11 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, when the nation turned to Twitter and Facebook for communication while phone lines were down. In addition, the release of The Social Network in theatres the same year also fuelled interest in Facebook, which now has over 16 million users, enjoying a growth of some 10 million users in the past 12 months.

The total Japan social media population is now estimated to be between 44.7 and 50.6 million (sources: eMarketer, Aug 2012 and Internet Association Japan, Jun 2012, respectively). At the same time, Japan has shown increased faith in opportunities in the social space with the launch of LINE, a social group chat application that has become hugely popular in a short time, with some 60 million users here and abroad.

A final point worth mentioning: Japan has always been a mobile culture in terms of internet use. And with the growing market share of smart devices in a nation where the overwhelming majority carries a mobile device, the ingraining of social engagement in society at large is almost certainly only a matter of time.

David Adams is account director, digital, Tokyo, at Weber Shandwick

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