Field Report: How Culture Impacts Japan’s Adoption of Social Technologies in Business and Life

Japan's Social Technographics 2008
Above Image: Social Technographics of Japan’s Online Consumers, this data (and more) is accessible from the Groundswell Profile tool.

First of all, this isn’t formal research, it’s just a one week observation from an outsider who spoke to a variety of companies and experts at a blogger dinner. For ongoing commentary and dedicated research from a true expert, meet colleague Jonathan Browne who’s a Forrester analyst focused on Customer Experience and based in Tokyo –he has far more knowledge, experience, and research on Japan than I likely ever will.

I’m here for one week speaking to some of Japan’s top companies about my research on communities and social technologies, as well as keynoting Japan’s ZDnet conference on social technologies and speaking to press and media. I soaked in as much Japanese culture as I could, and make a lot of observations and comparisons on twitter.

[Japan is global technology leader, yet when it comes to social computing, culture is the strongest influence –not technology]

Japan’s high tech industry fuels innovation –and impacts culture
Everywhere I look I see process and technology efficiencies that improve Japan’s environment. Every minute detail has been thought out, in order to ensure the country works well together and is efficient in day to day operations. Riding a 100+ MPH bullet train to Osaka confirms that only a few countries can develop and put into action a transportation system so effective.

Yet despite the high adoption and leadership of technology (esp mobile) in Japan, some locals expressed to me that technology optimism within Japan is actually very low. Some expressed to me that individuals are less social in real life as they tend to communicate via mobile devices.

Japanese Social Technographics (see above graphic)
Yet despite the advances in technology from any country, it’s important to note the impact of culture on social media. In fact, social media marketing is more like psychology or sociology than it is about marketing –in fact, technology is just a trigger point –and not much more.

I’m told that Japan’s group think culture can cause pressure that gives individuals a desire for self-expression. These tools can enable just that, and I’ve learned that many Japanese have multiple profiles to allow them to traverse in public, with friends, or speak their mind anonymously.

Looking at the graph at the top of this post, this confirms my observations. It’s interesting to note that ‘creators’ in United States are 21% compared to 35% in Japan, also, both countries have about equal number of ‘spectators’ both more than 2/3rds. In a culture where mobile usage is extremely high, accessing the web at any time is a fingers’ reach, this may explain why the ‘spectator’ behavior is so high.

Most corporations hesitant to adopt social
I expect social media adoption to continue to increase among citizens, consumers, and the public, yet we’re still a few years off from seeing a mass movement of corporations adopt these tools, unless there are some ‘punkings’ that spur corporations out of hesitation and start to react then be proactive.

I heard case studies of companies like Nissan and Sanyo using social technologies to reach customers, but although I can’t confirm it, some blogging initiatives don’t enable comments. Even with that said, experience shows that successful social media efforts require corporations to truly be transparent resulting in the rich history of Japanese corporate culture to change.

[While consumer adoption of the social and mobile web is high, corporations will be slow to adopt until they experience brand damage and true loss of control]

Corporate and social pressures increase perceived risk of social adoption
I spoke with bloggers, corporations and colleagues and confirmed that Japan’s top down management approach make it difficult for a Groundswell to be accepted within corporations. Furthermore, senior leadership may be removed from being adopters of these new technology –furthering the understanding gap. Although all brands are fearful of failure and risk, within Japanese corporations this resonates even louder. The ‘fail quickly and iterate’ mentality of silicon valley isn’t a virtue shared within Japan’s long time pillars of business.

At my keynote at Tokyo’s Zdnet event, I presented my findings from my recent research report on the “Best and Worst of Social Network Marketing” I could visible see the attendees get uncomfortable as I outlined the many companies who had ‘failed’ my test. Despite the unpleasant feeling, it was important that the attendees see who did it wrong –then right, so their chances of success increase.

Expect to see corporate internal adoption before external
Perhaps the first place to look for corporate adoption isn’t within the marketing and PR departments, but within the internal enterprise. I met with a few companies who expressed that internal usage of communities and social networks are already underway. Given the strength of the Japanese culture that can act collectively (although may be more top down than bottom up) the opportunity for group think collaboration may be high.

[Across the globe, power shifts to the participants of the social web. To reduce risk and become more connected with customers, Japanese corporations should prepare to engage with social technologies. Given this untapped approach, savvy brands who yield the traditional command and control approach can seize an opportunity before their competitors]

To be successful with social marketing corporations should:,
I’m echoing what Johnathan Browne has posted, read his full post to get more context.

  • Let go of the “command and control” Public Relations mentality
  • Focus on PEOPLE not on technology
  • Empower young Japanese employees as innovators

  • Related Reading

  • Q&A: What is the Japanese equivalent of [Western web service]?. Find out which websites are popular in US and they’re counterparts in Japan.
  • Japanese more likely to search for term “wiki” but does it reflect adoption?
  • Cathy shares her observations of some of Japan’s web services: What can you add to this?
  • Terry White attended one of my presentations, and comments on how a focus on people –not technology will prevail.