In the Japanese social-networking scene, Facebook still isn’t dominating the way it does in the United States and many other countries. There are several other networks in Japan, both old and new, that occupy unique positions, though 2013 was an unusually quiet year, with no big takeovers among social-networking companies here.
The relatively young mobile chat/call service Line, which pulled ahead of older rivals in 2012, increased its growth speed and secured top spot as Japan’s largest social-network.
On Nov. 25, it announced that it had 300 million registered users worldwide, about 50 million of whom are from its homeland, Japan.
Line’s communications are mainly made privately between existing friends, replacing email and phone calls, so its activities are less noticeable when compared to Facebook and Twitter, where people share things more publically. However, backed by its massive number of users, it has also attracted negative media attention because of incidents when it’s been used for criminal activity, such as stalking.
Japanese love Twitter, so its popularity continues to grow, but its user numbers have basically plateaued, and new users are no longer rushing in. People have settled into Twitter use and it has become part of daily life, but minor criminals hunted by moral vigilantes online often make news, which might turn some people toward more private services like Line.
On Dec. 12, Twitter official released 2013’s Top 10 hashtags. Three of them were online-games, while four were anime — reflecting topics popular in the Japanese Twitter-sphere. The full list is:
1. “Kankore (Kantai Collection)”: A PC game starring anime girls;
2. “Amachan”: NHK TV’s morning drama
3. “Love Live”: A smartphone game featuring anime girl idols;
4. WBC (World Baseball Championship) — baseball;
5. “Shingeki”: A manga and anime series titled “Shingeki no Kyojin (“Attack on Titan”);
6. FF14 (“Final Fantasy IVX”): An online game;
7. TV “Free”: An anime revolving around high school swimming team boys;
8. “Railgun”: An anime with schoolgirl characters;
9. “Vivid Red Operation”: An anime involving junior-high school girls with special powers;
10. C84 = Comic Market #84: Comiket, Japan’s largest manga convention.
Gree and (DeNA’s) Mobage
There was not much good news for the two game-centric mobile networks, but both still have users who pay for virtual items in order gain advantages in gameplay. While these users are only a small percentage of all users, they still generates massive sales on Gree, Mobage and other cellphone games. However, neither company was able to replicate the success they have had on feature phones when users began to migrate to smartphones. As such, they have not captured overseas markets despite spending a lot on expansion attempts and have had to shut down several offices around the world.
When the market was mostly made up of feature phones, both Gree and Mobage established their own game platforms with hundreds of titles, so they never really looked outside the network. Most game vendors begged to be listed and paid venue fees. But on smartphones, third-party companies prefer to deliver games directly to users rather than pay extra to go through Gree or Mobage. As a result, 2013 was actually a big year for some game vendors. Gunghoo, for example, saw its stock go through the roof in May — reaching about 100 times higher than a year before — due to the success of its widely popular “Puzzle & Dragons.” Another company that did well was Colopl, whose “Mahou-tsukai to Kuroneko no Wiz” (“Magician and the Black cat Wiz”) has had 8 million downloads.
Facebook and Mixi
Eclipsed by Line’s growing success, there was less of a buzz about Facebook this year, but it did establish a concrete position among Japanese users. Somewhat ironically, Facebook is now seen as a place for people who lead successful lives offline and the term “ria-ju” (riaru juujitsu, really fulfilled) is now used to describe them. It also proved popular for job-hunting among recent college grads.
As for Mixi, the Japanese version of Facebook — which suffered more than others when the U.S. giant arrived — it recently got an unexpected boost when its stock skyrocketed by more than 750 percent. This was likely due to the success of a new game called “Monster Strike,” which operates on Mixi. But it is as yet unknown whether the game will save Mixi.
Mobage company DeNA reported in June it will reduce its Line-like Comm business. Another messaging-service rival, Kakao Talk, which is related to Yahoo! Japan, also had a capital decrease in November.
Pinterest, a growing photo-sharing social network, whose investors includes the huge Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, finally rolled out its Japanese version on Nov. 11, though it has not yet set a trend here.
Smartphone photo-sharing service Instagram, with 150 million users worldwide, was purchased by Facebook last year but still has limited popularity in Japan.
SnapChat, which claims to be “more popular than Facebook among U.S. teens,” has not yet been localized. Though Facebook responded with its “Poke” app, while Recruit made “Seesaw,” a Japanese copy.
This year again, there was no one company that dominated in Japan as Facebook does in the U. S. Line’s numbers set an unprecedented record, but it is still less than half of Japan’s population. I am unsure whether the majority of Japanese will continue to use Line next year.
Personally, I hope that a currently unknown social service will emerge in 2014.
Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on the Japanese web scene. His Twitter account @akky is followed by 120,000 users.