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Country Spotlight – Japan: The culture of online anonymity and its implications for social listening

In the Country Spotlight series, we focus on how human-led social listening can help businesses gain invaluable market-specific insights into consumer behaviour, cultural nuances and digital trends to identify and connect with local target audiences.

Widely recognised as one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, Japan has witnessed unprecedented digitalisation across industries and infrastructure in recent years. Its commitment to keeping an edge in all things digital forms part of the country’s mission to become the new global blueprint for a super-smart society – a government-led initiative that goes under the name Society 5.0. 

It is hard to imagine a better-suited market to deploy this ambitiously bold concept; Japan is the second most digitally connected country in Asia, with South Korea only slightly ahead in terms of internet penetration. Online social networks are virtually omnipresent, both in the private as well as the public sphere. Its tradition-bound culture heavily influences how Japanese people interact online and poses a barrier to brands that disregard these complex social codes in their attempt to connect with local audiences. In this post, we’re taking a close-up look at Japan’s digital landscape, and its implications for brands looking to learn more about the market and its consumers through social listening.

Japanese citizens are among the most digitally connected in the world.

Key Platforms in Japan

Launched in 2011, LINE, similar to China’s WeChat, is the most used social media app in Japan. Although still trumped by YouTube when it comes to the number of users of its video streaming platform in Japan, its range of features – including games, shopping solutions and even a manga comic library – has won over Japanese consumers and made it the nation’s favourite overall communication platform. Of the Western social media giants, Twitter is by far the biggest, exceeding both Facebook and Instagram in terms of the number of users. In fact, Japan boasts the second largest number of users next to the U.S. Newer social media platforms, including TikTok and Korean camera app Snow are gaining traction among younger audiences who seek out alternative ways to create content and interact with friends and online communities. Traditional forums and message boards are another favoured medium, with 5channel topping the most-used list in this category. 

Key Online Behaviour in Japan

When it comes to digital consumer behaviour, the real difference between Japan and the Western world is less about the platforms and channels, and more about how they are being used. Because, whereas most social media users in the US and Europe post content and interact using their real name and profile photo, Japanese netizens prefer to stay anonymous. This predominant tendency to hide behind aliases, fake identities and anime avatars is seen across the digital space, even on social media platforms that are arguably designed for self-promotion. Typically, influencers include a brief bio describing their character in their profiles, but hide their face or use an avatar, contributing to the high prevalence of ‘virtual celebrities’.

 

Examples of anonymous virtual celebrities:

 

Drivers behind anonymised identities

So what lies behind this widespread preference to stay anonymous? Although concerns about third-party data collection is a contributing factor, there’s also something deeper at play. Japan is known for honouring strong-rooted traditions and placing an emphasis on respect. The flip side of the coin is a highly conformist and collective culture where social conventions are rigorously followed. Societal pressure makes it difficult for people to go against the grain and freely express their opinion or identity without fear of being judged, rejected and socially excluded. Anonymised accounts allow Japanese people to liberate themselves from these societal pressures without worrying about repercussions in their public lives.

Hostile nature of forums and message boards

It would be easy to assume then that the anonymous nature of forums would make them the go-to format for Japanese netizens seeking a free haven. However, these are on the whole thought to represent the ugly side of the internet. Because there are few rules on Japanese forums and message boards, members can publish pornographic, violent and even racist content without being kicked off the site. This ‘lawlessness’ appears to appeal to a subset of dominant forum users who revel in expressing a darker and more irreverent side of their personality. Although far from all forum users seek to engage with grotesque graphics and depraved content, the image of forums and message boards as hostile and catering to a limited crowd of disgruntled young men is widely accepted. 

Where the notoriety of forums has put Japanese netizens off, Twitter has stepped in as a safer and friendlier alternative. Again, anonymous accounts are the majority; it’s rare to see profiles with real names or revealing any identifiable details in their bios. While concealing their true identity, Japan’s Twitter users can find like-minded individuals and connect with people locally and internationally. Furthermore, in contrast to many of the other social networks in the country, Twitter is used across demographics. In fact, it has the highest variety of users of all the mainstream platforms.

Why Twitter has become Japan’s favourite social media platform

Anonymity is truly at the heart of Twitter’s popularity in Japan. Here we take a closer look at how this is manifested.

  • It offers a place to vent and speak up

Japanese Twitter users don’t hold back. Honesty is the best policy, even when it means expressing controversial, damaging or insulting opinions. The hive mentality associated with Twitter is even more notable in Japan, possibly fuelled by the anonymous nature of the interactions. This behaviour has been encapsulated by the term  “炎上” (enjou), loosely translated to “blowing up in flames”, which is used to describe an event where Twitter users collectively participate in criticism of an ongoing scandal or certain topic. Typically it’s a public figure coming under fire, with the unforgiving Japanese Twitterati on standby, ready to add fire to the flames. Although Twitter serves as the go-to channel for contentious debates in the US and Europe too, the crucial difference is the high share of anonymous contributors in Japan. Without being able to disguise their identity, it’s safe to assume few users would feel as comfortable speaking their mind.

  • A safe space to talk about taboo topics

Twitter functions as a short message format version of traditional online forums. It gives internet users a space to talk about things that can be considered taboo in Japanese society, from mental health, sex and relationships to politics and problems in the workplace. The anonymity encourages them to speak freely while they might otherwise fear judgement, intimidation or ridicule. 

  • Feed niche hobbies and interests

Twitter is home to countless niche communities in Japan. The advent of the internet has made it easier across the world to find and access niche communities online than IRL. However, because of the prevailing pressure to conform in Japanese society, subcultures are likely to be deemed deviant and plain weird, discouraging people from joining them using their real names. By remaining anonymous, people are able to join these communities and fandoms, be it about manga, anime or gaming, without suffering the harmful effects of stigma and shame. Interestingly, this rich and dynamic variety of subcultures on Japanese Twitter has resulted in a large community of artistic creators who share their work, inspired by e.g. their favourite anime or manga characters, with their peers. Thus, Twitter acts as a source of creative craftsmanship and helps to maintain and develop Japanese culture and art.

 

 

  • One account for each passion

To escape the hardships of real life, many Japanese people don’t just have one profile on Twitter, but several different ones to express and feed distinct interests and identities. In fact, according to this recently published article on Nomura.co.jp, the proportion of people with multiple accounts is more than 40% in their 30s, more than 50% in their 20s, and nearly 70% in their teens. For example, someone might have one account exclusively dedicated to K-pop, another for FX trading, and a third one for exercise, to allow them to easily navigate through communities and engage in niche content. These dedicated profiles give rise to buzzing online communities around specific interests in which people can go all-in, using their chosen profile to explore different areas of their character online.

In short, Twitter offers a place for liberation and self-expression via anonymous identities. The platform acts as a key driver for social change as people use the extra layer of protection to speak up, indulge their interests, exchange advice and encourage each other to take a stance against injustice. Crucially, it also offers an instant snapshot of what matters to Japanese consumers at any given time.

Implications of online anonymity for social listening

What are the practical implications of this approach to Twitter when conducting social listening in Japan? One thing’s certain: Twitter must always be included in any project that seeks to understand Japanese consumer behaviour and culture.

Thanks to its strong online communities around diverse topics, the platform allows us to easily identify and target audiences based on specific interests. And while the anonymous identity of influencers can be frustrating when it comes to pinning them down and building a comprehensive understanding of who they actually are, their online personas are often rich and their conversations with fans invaluable in terms of potential insights to be reaped. 

However, it’s important to recognise the limitations of social listening when it comes to the Japanese market. Due to the predominance of anonymous accounts, it’s rare to find demographic information of users on Twitter. Any information that puts their anonymous status at risk, such as gender, sex, age, location and profession, is usually left out. The abundance of anonymous accounts also results in a large amount of noise from fake accounts and bots. Even for experienced and native social listeners, it’s not always straightforward to determine whether an account is genuine, which means ruling out fake accounts can be one of the more taxing phases of a social listening project focused on the Japanese market. The existence of anonymous accounts, and therefore the potential of social media-based research, is also at the mercy of Twitter and any changes to privacy settings they choose to implement. 

Convosphere’s solution

To overcome the limitations of Twitter, Convosphere is able to combine social listening data from Twitter with data from other channels, such as forums, public profiles on Instagram and Facebook, and, where possible, local social media platforms. By supplementing Twitter with other channels, we can retrieve more information on the audiences’ profiles, as these channels are more likely to have details on the users’ occupation, age, sex and/or gender. Turning to other channels also helps us find further evidence to support Twitter-based indicators or findings, for example, emerging trends or the interests of key consumer groups.

Although social listening platforms are a vital component of our work, they are only tools in a box and need to be handled by experts. Even the most sophisticated social listening tool cannot deliver insights to answer complex business questions. This is particularly true when it comes to non-English data, with Japanese linguistics – characters, words, grammar, as well as encodings and emoji – posing an additional challenge for tech-only solutions. 

Our Japanese analysts have the native familiarity with Japanese culture and language required to identify the signals in the noise. Additionally, rather than seeing the anonymous nature of Japanese social media as a hurdle to be overcome, they turn it into an asset. Anonymised or not, social data offers immense value to any consumer research project. But without an experienced team that knows how to slice and dice the mounds of data to get the insights out, it’s impossible to realise its potential. 

Make your Japan strategy a success – speak to us today

With our team of 150+ in-country analysts across the globe, including Eastern Asia, brands seeking growth opportunities in new markets can rely on Convosphere for actionable insights. Make your go-to-market strategy a success – contact us today.

Our global insights team conducts social listening in over 100 languages to answer our clients’ most important business questions with actionable insights that deliver impact.

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