Although things have been changing in recent years — as more Japanese women continue to work after marriage — in Japan it is still usually women who are expected to prepare meals for the family. And whether it be making bento (lunch boxes) for their husbands or children, or preparing the evening meal, Japanese homemakers are known to turn to the Internet to find new recipes.

It is perhaps not so strange then to discover that what is arguably the world’s most successful online recipe service is Japanese.

Cookpad.com, which lists 870,000 free user-generated recipes, boasts more than 10 million users: 96.5 percent of whom are female (75.3 percent of those are married). The site gets 445 million page views per month, which is close to the same web-traffic as major U.S. recipe sites such as AllRecipes.com and the Food Network — not bad for a site that can only be read by Japanese speakers, and that only really targets one half of the population. (Imagine how successful they would be if more men started cooking!)

Cookpad Inc. is listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in the Mothers (market of the high-growth and emerging stocks) section and according to their 2010 financial report they had sales of ¥2.2 billion, with a profit of ¥567 million. But if the site is “free” how can it be so financially successful?

The answer is a combination of premium membership, cooperative-marketing and advertising, in that order.

The number of paid users is not disclosed by the company, but we can infer it from the sales figures. Around 450,000 members pay ¥294 each month to get advanced features such as being able to sort by popularity, bookmark 3,000 recipes (as opposed to the 20 for free members), subscribe to 50 recipe writers (10 for free), and do enhanced searches for old recipes. That figure, 450,000, equates to 1 in 300 of Japan’s population, so it is no exaggeration to say that Cookpad is one of Japan’s most successful paid web services, despite only focusing on providing recipes.

The web company Rakuten, on the other hand, is a conglomerate formed around Japan’s largest e-shopping mall, Rakuten Ichiba. The Rakuten brand covers online book-selling, travel reservations, bank and e-money, auctions, credit cards, a baseball team, and so on.

In October 2010, Rakuten added a new service to their lineup and launched Rakuten Recipe. Basically, Rakuten Recipe tries to provide everything Cookpad does, but with no paid membership. They proudly announce on their top page, and on banner ads on other websites, that users can “Sort recipes by popularity, for free.” It is clear that they are directly targeting Cookpad users.

Unlike Cookpad, Rakuten Recipe actually rewards recipe posters. The Rakuten group has a virtual currency called Rakuten Super Points, which can be circulated among their services. Each recipe post earns 50 points, which equals a ¥50 discount that can, for example, be used on Rakuten Ichiba. Users who write a cooking report on a recipe also receive 10 points.

If it was your job, getting paid only ¥50 to write a new recipe would not be very lucrative. But, if you had already written a pile of recipes elsewhere and then reposted them on Rakuten Recipe you could make some decent pocket money. And while the official Rakuten Recipe blog warns against copying other people’s recipes — probably because they have received complaints from the original authors — only the photos and text is copyrighted, not the cooking methods themselves. That means it is still possible to re-create a recipe and post it with new photos and revised text, thereby earning your ¥50 fair and square.

Another advantage to Rakuten is their wide variety of e-shops. Linking recipes to shops selling ingredients, spices or equipment will generate further income for Rakuten Recipe users.

Paying users for the content they generate is not always necessary for such a site to become successful: For example, Wikipedia, which does not pay for content, is still the number one site of its kind. But the loyalty of Cookpad is being challenged as people are paid to shift to Rakuten.

According to Nielsen Online, in November 2010, Rakuten Recipe gained a quarter the number of visitors of Cookpad — in only their second month — and they are quickly catching up the second placed Yahoo! Gourmet Recipe site.

Yahoo! Japan’s strategy is to create category-based areas of their empire, such as Yahoo! Mobage (a PC game portal set up with Mobage-Town), and the apparel e-mall Yahoo! Zozotown. And their recipe site succeeds by utilizing the massive number of visitors that are vacuumed into their portal.

It will be interesting to see if an independent speciality site like Cookpad can survive against department stores of the web, and avoid being sucked into black holes such as Yahoo! and Rakuten.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com. A Japanese version of this article is available on his blog at akimoto.jp. You can follow him @akky on Twitter.

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