2011 was the year that social media came into its own in Japan. When phones went down on March 11, Japan connected with Twitter, mixi and Facebook in record numbers. Social media went from being a curiosity to a lifeline. Connecting online wasn’t just for the users, either; in 2011, the social media sites started friending each other.

Mixi and Twitter announced a partnership in November, possibly to shore up against a rapidly growing Facebook. With growth spurred by the movie “The Social Network,” Facebook was named the no. 2 “hit product” of 2011 by Nikkei Trendy magazine. While earlier in the year it looked like Facebook was getting left behind by Japan’s own social media sites, a November Nielsen report showed Facebook pulling ahead in the last quarter to surpass Mixi for the first time with some 11 million users. However, Mixi quickly issued a statement saying it actually had about double the 8.4 million active users that Nielsen had reported, since many people access the site from their cellphones, which the Nielsen report didn’t track.

As before, mobile remains a major access mode for online content in Japan. Whether or not Mixi actually feels threatened by Facebook, the tie-up with Twitter suggests it’s watching its back.

In another partnership, Google+ partnered with pop idol juggernaut AKB48 and its regional versions, for a total of almost 90 individual accounts. The performers have swamped the top 100 most popular users list in Japan, leaving only a handful of spots for other idols and Japanese tech gurus.

Two of the largest social networks in Japan are mobile gaming sites. GREE and Mobage Town have over 20 million users each. Mobage Town’s parent company DeNA has been making acquisitions in international markets including China, the U.S. and Chile, again showing the importance of collaboration for social sites.

Social media came to the forefront after the disasters of March 11. Much attention was given within Japan and around the world to the speed and scope of emergency information shared in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. In the first hours, many people were able to use social media sites to find each other. As the after-effects continued, people kept up with breaking news and planned power outages and also used social media to coordinate volunteer efforts. New users stayed on after the immediate danger passed, and they settled into more recreational uses: In December, Japan crushed the previous tweets-per-second record during with a coordinated Twitter storm during a TV airing of beloved anime classic “Laputa.”

In flash marketing, Groupon started the year with a severe stumble in Japan, offering a deal on the special osechi meal Japanese people typically enjoy on New Year’s Day. The meals, which arrived late, soggy and overpriced — when they arrived at all — kicked off the year’s first PR disaster. The company pulled back in 2011 from the previous year’s ubiquitous banner ads. Different surveys show markedly different overall numbers: a survey by goo Research and japan.internet.com  found about a quarter of respondents had purchased something through a group deal while mediba put the figure at seven percent. Both show rapid growth for Ponpare and a slowing for Groupon.

LinkedIn launched in Japan in October of this year and followed in Twitter’s footsteps by partnering with Digital Garage and opening an office here, too. Next year, look for more jockeying for the top spot and more game integration in mixi and Japanese Facebook. It remains to be seen if location-based services will grow or wither. Until now, the big social media stories have been about U.S. products making inroads in Japan. Watch for things to start moving in the opposite direction, from Japan to the rest of the world.

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