Online retail marketing in Japan


Can you sell to the Japanese without a Japanese-language version of your website? It depends…

Use of English

Compulsory education in English has steadily increased over recent years. Translated into UK school years, young Japanese now receive extensive compulsory English language lessons (Figure 20):

Demographics of English confidence

As you might expect, there’s a correlation between English competence and earning power (Figure 21), so if you have an English language site and hope that Japanese will shop it, you’ll be reaching better customers. But really it’s not a substitute for translating properly.

Social Networking

Familiar names

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, in that order, are major social networks with which you will be familiar, and which are used extensively in Japan. If you believe their own data, Facebook has 24 million users, 53.1% of whom access it at least once per month, while Twitter has 19.8 million, 60.5% of whom access it at least once per month (it’s more important in Japan than in many countries). So far, so familiar... although actually, Japan is also one of the few countries where Google+ has any relevant traction.


Probably less familiar is LINE. Depending on which data source you believe, it’s actually used much more than Facebook in Japan, with 52 million users and a 66% monthly access rate. It’s certainly important, and just as relevantly, growing in importance. It also has a much better demographic reach (see just below), especially if you want to access the over 25s.

Put simply, if you’re serious about social media marketing in Japan, you’ll need to master LINE.

What does it do? At its core, it’s a kind of combination of Facebook plus Whatsapp: wall/timeline, messaging, calls. Its central marketing concept is "stickers" which you download and can use as a kind of sophisticated emoji while using LINE. In exchange for the "sticker", you "friend" the supplier of the sticker and therefore see updates either in your messaging or home-page. (There’s also a sub-industry creating paid stickers.) Note that if you overcook the messaging and become irritating, the user can still block you later.

Below are some screenshots to give you a feel for it (Figure 22).

Incidentally, this also gives you a flavour of preferred Japanese marketing communication style; just repackaging your home graphics probably isn’t going to hit the spot in Japan.


Social media penetration by age group follows the pattern you would probably expect.

Another probably unfamiliar name appears on this chart: Mixi. Mixi is essentially a uniquely Japanese version of Facebook – for starters, you need a Japanese phone number to verify an account. It’s distinctive in a number of other ways: real names are generally not used, and you can’t have more than 1000 friends (unless you are designated a "celebrity").

Mixi is good place to be if you’re especially interested in reaching a younger, female, urban demographic. Uniqlo, for example, are rather active on it (Figure 23). Because real names are generally not used, Japanese regard it as a place for more "private" conversations in contrast to Facebook which is rather public.

Other marketing channels

Email & SMS

Email and SMS marketing are subject to Japan’s strict privacy laws (see the legal section below). In essence, Japan follows the EU and Canada in requiring an explicit opt-in to any such communications, plus prompt observance of opt-outs. Unsolicited messaging is illegal.

Japanese tend to read emails on a PC: 76% of emails were read on PCs/laptops in late 2015, despite Japan’s long mobile heritage, although in practice they might be pre-read on the phone first. There is a residual perception of email as a formal channel, which perhaps reinforces that device preference. Certainly any email sent from a company is (legally) required to give not only the name of an individual sender but also his/her job title. People also read them primarily in the hopes of getting coupons and discounts, 39% stating that as the primary reason. 

There’s an age crossover point where it is probably more effective communicating by email than via social (Figure 24).

SMS marketing is used in Japan, and enjoys very high open rates (potentially over 90%) provided that it’s used with appropriate care of course. Japanese are no more tolerant than any other nation of SMS spam.

What they are considered more tolerant of, incidentally, is banner advertising on mobile: "There is more acceptance of ads as a value-exchange mentality in Asia, particularly Japan."

And less tolerant of? Breaking cultural norms: 4 and 9 are unlucky numbers, 7 is lucky. Blue is good, black bad. Beckoning cats are good luck, red is good, but red cats are bad luck. Got all that? In short, take local advice!

6.3.2 Affiliate networks

Inevitably Amazon runs its usual affiliate programme in Japan.

So does Rakuten, but in line with its apparent strategy of acquiring interesting partners, it also owns Linkshare, now rebranded as "Rakuten Affiliate Network" but which operates much more like a standard affiliate programme and isn’t confined to Rakuten.

Value Commerce was the pioneer affiliate network in Japan, and is still a major player.

Alternatives include some with western presences such as Clixnet and Zanox also having specialist Japan offerings, and some local players such as J-A-Net and A8.


Search engines

The largest, and uniquely Japanese, local search engine is Yahoo-Japan (best to forget any mental associations with US Yahoo!) - Figure 25. Not all search starts on a search engine of course, and Japan also has a local Youtube rival, Nicovideo.

Japan thus falls into a very small group of countries – the only others are really South Korea, a few of the Russian-speaking countries, and to a lesser extent Czechia – where still Google is important enough to matter, but not the number one (Figure 26).

Challengingly, of course, this may mean mastering two different skill-sets.

SEM/PPC – relative costs

Although it’s very difficult to make comparable benchmarks, you can probably assume average SEM costs will be a bit cheaper in Japan than they are in the UK or US.


  If you’re targeting the young or the highly educated, you might just about get away with English; you’ll still see a lot of lost sales, however.

  If you’re targeting anyone over 30, Japanese is going to be mandatory.

  Basically, targeting Japan means tackling Japanese translation.

  Japan presents a rather unfamiliar landscape for social network marketing.

  Sticking with Facebook is a possible strategy, supplemented by a lot more tweeting than you probably do back home.

  To be really effective on social, you almost certainly need to master LINE, and may need to master mixi depending on your target demographics.

  Email and SMS marketing require explicit opt-in, not explicit opt-out, consent.

  Email is still effective, especially targeting the over 30s, but in that case it must be in Japanese and conform with local cultural norms, including giving the name, title and organisation of the sender.

  There’s a selection of credible affiliate networks available, both local and international with local offices.

  Google are in Japan, and are important, but aren’t the biggest search engine, which is Yahoo Japan. For complete customer reach, it’s probably necessary to be active on both.

  There’s some evidence that the existence of two search engines keeps SEM costs lower than in Google-dominated countries.

  Considering the limited comfort-level with English in Japan, you may be faced with mastering an unfamiliar marketing landscape in an unfamiliar language; outsourcing various elements to local agencies might well be a good option. This is localisation, not mere translation, at its most challenging!




Japan's retail landscape

Japan's online shopping behaviours

Japan's competitive landscape

Legal framework and regulation in Japan

Internet usage and connectivity in Japan

Payment and Logistics in Japan