Japanese e-commerce websites may adopt the social platform Pinterest to move low-priced products, following online retailer Rakuten’s $50M investment in the platform. This, in turn, may spur a studied and refined use of social media on the Japanese web.
So far, even brands like Nikon show big differences between their websites intended for a Western or an Eastern audience. Sites written in Japanese rarely, if ever, apply social media. The exception is sites that rank hotels, restaurants, and similar businesses. The sites rely on Mixi, Japan’s equivalent to Facebook.
The Western web expects social media. In contrast, Japanese clients expect homepages that feature company news, corporate accomplishments, and management charts. (Disclosure: the writer has designed websites in Japan at a traditional corporation.)
Rakuten announced in May that it will take a $50M stake in Pinterest, leading a $100M round of funding. This signals a shift in norms on the Japanese web.
The move may prove advantageous, according to Ejovi Nuwere, a serial entrepreneur based in Japan.
“Traffic from Pinterest to e-commerce sites is considered high-value traffic,” Nuwere said in an interview. “Higher value than Facebook traffic for example. The number of Pinterest Japanese users is still under 200,000 but Rakuten is betting that it will grow in Japan and they will have a first mover advantage at monetizing this new traffic source.”
Nuwere predicts that “Pinterest traffic will convert best for low-end items.” He believes “posting a picture of a beautiful resort that costs $1,000 a night won’t convert as well as a picture of a cute [lunch] box that costs $9.”
Nuwere’s prediction measures what he thinks will convert “best.” If lower prices convert best, then it will be left to economists to determine how elastic the demand is.
“Rakuten’s sweet spot is low-priced items,” Nuwere said, “so it could work out well for them.”
Whether Rakuten’s wager will bring a 2.0-type social media revolution across Japan, and particularly for business, remains to be seen.
An Aging Population, Reluctant to Change
The state of Japan’s web may be due to the nation’s aging population – people who did not grow up with computers – as well as cultural tendencies to avoid diving into change. This part of the population is semi-retired, and has settled into moderate wealth, thanks to Japan’s history of career-long employment, and its pension system.
Forbes Asia editor Tim Ferguson has noted Japan’s aversion to change and has expressed doubts about major shifts in innovation. Instead, Ferguson said, Japan has an excellent track record of improving on and refining the innovations of others. (Think cars and cameras.) It is a cultural maxim to “avoid weaving a new kind of cloth until others have tested the thread.”
Known for a Cutting-Edge
In sectors tangential to the web, such as telecommunications, Japan holds a strong lead. It is the only country worldwide to have its own satellite network for cellular phones. In cities like Tokyo and Osaka, phones double as subway passes and bank cards; most packages have QR codes; vending machines recommend items based on facial recognition; silent “bullet” trains are punctual and blazing fast.
Japan resisted smartphones. The main complaint was that text messaging worked differently and did not include enough emotional icons, a familiar part of Japanese texting. Now a 4G smartphone is old news. A Japanese author was first to write a novel entirely via syndicated texting.
Terahertz wi-fi (as of May 2012) is the major speed breakthrough, reports Fox Van Allen for Tecca/Mashable: “The technology (uses) the unregulated terahertz band of the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit data. Japanese scientists have been able to achieve real-world wireless speeds of 3GB/s via the tech. Terahertz wi-fi is capable of speeds as high as 100GB/s – at least in theory.”
With further research, Van Allen says, “terahertz wi-fi could soon find its way into smartphones.”
The Nail Is Hammered Down
Ferguson agreed in an interview that Japan’s culture has an inherent chilling effect toward innovation. It is vital not to appear foolish. Appearing confident and then foolish is far worse than appearing, say, exhausted or intoxicated. As a result, would-be innovators may hold back on new inventions.
Being the first to go all-in toward a new method or technology, and in a very public way, is similar to the fable about the Emperor’s new clothes. The difference, though, is that a Japanese crowd may insist the clothes are visible, praise the weavers for their fine craftwork, and ridicule the person pointing out the naked truth.
“That’s the old nail-draws-the-hammer mindset,” Ferguson said. “Don’t stand out.”