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Can Facebook make it in Japan? Pros and Cons


Facebook has flaws. Some management decisions are sometimes debatable to say the least. And yes, some requests get can get on your nerves. But in my view, Facebook is still the best place to connect with people. Much better than Friendster, Bebo, MySpace etc.

No Facebook Japan yet
Update: Facebook Japan launched (May 20th, 2008), see my post.
As of now, Facebook does not offer a Japanese version. But it seems that the company finally makes some serious moves towards internationalization. This month, my fellow Germans Alexander, Marc and Oliver Samwer have invested in Facebook, supposedly to prepare the entry into Europe. In November last year, famous Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing decided the service is worthy enough to shell out 60 million USD of his pocket money to them (he is Asia’s richest man).

So a “Facebook Japan” might come closer even though it is undecided yet when this will become a reality.

MySpace offers a Japanese version now. Friendster followed in December. Both sites offer no incentives for many Japanese people to join however. I am sure most “ordinary” Japanese people never even heard of these services.

The same is true for Facebook.

The Japanese don’t really care much about other SN than Mixi. As regular readers of this blog know by now, Mixi rules the Japanese SN market (my Mixi review). Mixi is supposed to have a user base of 12 million people.

Can Facebook emulate this tremendous success? Time to think about some pros and cons.

Japanese people love innovations and Facebook will be new to a LOT of users over here.

Compared to domestic products, foreign goods and services are often viewed as cooler, more exotic and desirable. This is especially true for consumer goods but may be a plus in the Web world as well.

Facebook is totally different from Mixi and would be quite unique in this country’s Internet market. In my view Facebook is actually “better”/more useful than Mixi. Especially some of the applications are quite cool.

More and more Japanese people have international friends they would like to be connected with. A Japanese version of Facebook might overcome the language barrier in online networking (Mixi is only available in Japanese).

Facebook is too late. They are late-comers yet super-successful competitors to MySpace and other services in the US and internationally. But WITHIN Japan, we have a “the winner takes it all” situation in my opinion. The cake is baked and Mixi took the largest bite already.

The Japanese are the most quality conscious people in the world. Users here would not forgive any mistakes. Especially security/privacy problems are serious issues in this country. I am not sure if Japanese people would trust a foreign social network service to keep their personal data safe.

Facebook does not have a “Japanese identity” which would certainly help (although it would set off the “gaijin bonus factor”).
Some sites like Youtube were successful in Japan BEFORE localization/translation. The reason: No Japanese company managed to push a similar product into the market in time. German Facebook clone “StudiVZ” (sold for 100 million USD last year) is much more successful than Facebook mainly because it has roots in the country’s university scene. At the very least Facebook needs a physical presence in Japan (MySpace established an office in Tokyo some time ago).

Facebook applications are cool but mostly in English. This will remain unchanged even if Facebook will offer a localized version of their site. Most Japanese people will not have the nerves to struggle with English menus, texts and “How-to”s. In this case, only applications written in Japanese and tailored for users over here would help.
Facebook without its thousands of applications is almost “just another social network”.

It will be VERY hard for Facebook to continue its success story in Japan. They are in a situation like Web giant Ebay 5 years ago when Ebay lost to Yahoo Japan’s well-established auction service. The world’s No.1 auction site closed their office in Tokyo after a few months.

My guess is Facebook will go for a cooperation with a Japanese player (like Ebay finally did with Yahoo Japan some weeks ago). Maybe they are on the prowl already.

The question is: Which Japanese service can that be?

Serkan Toto About Serkan Toto
I am the CEO & Founder of Kantan Games, Inc., a Tokyo-based game industry consultancy focused on the Japanese market. Please subscribe to updates on this site via RSS or Email.