Hold the Phone: Japan’s Growing Mobile Internet Market

Aug 11, 2009


Japan’s political environment has been a reliable column-filler for journalists as of late, with this month’s elections likely to result in an unprecedented political power shift in the land of the rising sun. The fanfare of historic elections notwithstanding, though, Japan also finds itself in the throes of another revolutionary transition – namely the internet and how people are accessing it.

The internet itself is old hat in Japan (however Yahoo’s ranking as the most accessed website in Japan may revive heady memories of the pre-Google days for some), with nationwide net penetration rates of 74% amongst the world’s highest. While impressive, the numbers alone are hardly newsworthy – Australia surpassed internet participation rates of 80% in 2008. But what is telling is the dramatic shift in how the Japanese are accessing the internet: Since 2006, the number of Japanese accessing the internet from their mobile phone (69.2 million) has surpassed the number of people accessing the internet from a computer (66 million).

The strong growth in mobile internet usage can be attributed to the unique cellular infrastructure environment that has developed in Japan. As Japan blogger Seron writes on his site, What Japan Thinks, “one of the biggest differences in standard mobile phone usage between Japan and the West is that almost every [Japanese] phone supports full internet email by default… On the other hand, the West is still wedded to SMS.” From a technology viewpoint, this is because Japan’s mobile network evolved without integration with the GSM international standards, and forged ahead with the creation of proprietary networks instead.

A stubborn insistence on proprietary platforms tends to revive memories of Sony’s ATRAC format debacle, and the lack of GSM-ready phones has likely robbed Japan of a healthy export market for their hi-tech devices – much to the relief of Nokia no doubt. Irrespective of this, Japan bet the bank on future integration of phone and internet well before anyone else, and looks to have come up trumps as global adoption slowly starts to pick up. As a sign of intent, the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry aims to increase the value of the digital content market to 50 trillion yen within the next 10 years.

Japanese advertising agencies, distracted by the intense fight for market share in Japan’s traditional ad market, were slow to react to new marketing opportunities on mobile phones. Only now is mobile internet advertising really catching up: Last year advertising expenditure in this realm grew dramatically by over 40% to JPY 91.3 billion. These figures are only the tip of the wireless iceberg, however, as the growing adoption of 3G mobile phones in Japan will allow more users to see the internet as they would on a desktop computer. Marketers take note: You lose a massive audience if your Japanese website is not mobile-internet compatible.

Google, who have found building market share in Japan difficult against the might of Yahoo!, consider the explosive growth in mobile internet users as a golden opportunity to crack the Japanese market. Rather than challenge Yahoo! on their own desktop turf (Yahoo! commands 75% of Japan’s search market), Google have literally taken to the streets – offering seamless integration with google maps and other applications to users of Japan’s largest SNS site, mixi. This is a bold but very interesting strategy – in a market where 85% of the country’s 108 million phone users are subscribed to mobile internet services, this might just be the way to challenge Yahoo’s long-established search engine dominance in Japan.