A year ago, Japan made up only 0.7 percent of Twitter’s global population. Over the course of 2009, however, estimates show the number of users in Japan grew by six to 10 times, with the current number standing somewhere around 4.5 million people. Japanese is now the second most-used language on the network after English – some 14% of of the 50 million tweets per day worldwide are in Japanese.

Naturally, much of that is the usual chitchat and link-sharing, but Japanese corporations and organizations are playing with the potential for word-of-mouth exposure, PR and retail growth. For smaller companies, Twitter allows them to bypass traditional channels and hawk their wares directly to consumers. The majors are using the micoblogging format to widen their reach and project a friendlier, more casual image.

Although Asian Fortune 100 companies lag behind the U.S. and Europe in sheer numbers of corporate Twitter accounts, those that are tweeting average more followers per account. And hundreds of Japanese companies are jumping on the bandwagon.

Many are taking tsubuyaku, the Japanese verb of choice for tweeting, rather literally. The word means mutter or murmer, and that is just what many seem to be doing, often to tens of thousands of followers.  While some big-name retailers, such as Muji, are announcing Twitter-only sales, others seem to be aiming simply to foster camaraderie and boost engagement through the so-called “casual tweet.” Udon chain Katokichi sends out personalized replies to messages about the noodle dish. Hamburger chain Mos Burger has about 30,000 followers on Twitter, but with a large portion of its posts commenting on the weather and the time of day, it’s not exactly pushing the hard sell. Tsutaya predictably sends followers  movie recommendations, but mixes those with chatter and quickie film quizzes, like “What was the name of the Jedi weapon in the Star Wars movies?”  Some restaurants, like are giving discounts to customers who tweet about their meal there on a sliding scale based on the number of followers the tweeter has.

Twitter levels the field so littler guys can play, too. Harajuku Taproom banters about beer and announces when new microbrews go on tap.  Searching on the hashtag #twiwari can bring up dozens of fresh discounts an hour, many, like a free pint of beer at Ikoinoba in Saitama, claimable by saying “I saw it on Twitter.”

Granted, some corporate Twitter accounts are using programmed “bots” that reply automatically with a light message when someone tweets about something relevant to their product . . . and some have been more successful at this than others. While a campaign this past fall for Dororich‘s jelly drinks was a hit, UCC Coffee was recently lambasted for its clumsy use of the technique and ended up having to apologize to users.

Twitter’s mobile capabilities are being stretched beyond the computer screen, too. Uniqlo used Twitter with live video on Ustream to broadcast the opening of a new store in Shibuya this past weekend. Panasonic opened a “Night Color Express” Twitter account to promote its new line of black appliances by taking over the massive LCD displays in front of Shibuya Station. Additionally, a campaign bus fitted with TV screens traveled the city streets at night for a week,  inviting people to hop aboard and tweet about “doing housework at night,” and so on, which were then displayed on TVs in Panasonic storefront windows.

Elsewhere, companies with staid corporate reputations are using Twitter to loosen their ties a bit and showing a more youthful side. NHK, the national broadcaster known for its  sober and starched programming, is gaining attention with a PR account that sends out personal replies to queries and even indulges in playful banter with other TV channel accounts.

Friendly tweeting goes all the way to the top. Last month, the  CEOs of mobile carrier Softbank, Masayoshi Son, and online retail giant Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani, both started their own Twitter feeds to communicate directly with customers and urged their employees to do the same. Son is responding to user feedback with comments like “That’s something to consider” and “What a revolutionary vision” and even answering personal questions, like why he became a naturalized Japanese citizen.

Beleaguered automaker Toyota has set up a Twitter presence for damage control in the wake of its international vehicle recalls. In contrast to the chattier accounts, this is an impersonal stream of curated news stories . . . and not really a conversation.

See Japan Pulse’s Twitter account for a sample of  tweeting restaurants and businesses.

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