With over 100 million mobile subscribers and 36 million gamers, Japan is one of the largest mobile app markets in the world. For marketers, the opportunities are significant – but it’s important to bear in mind that local in-app preferences differ to the global market, and extra effort is needed to ensure your app is successfully localized and distributed.
One notable difference is that when apps are only available in English, they are seen as “foreign”. As such, these tend to be very niche, and hold limited opportunities for brands.
For your app to be successful in Japan, there are 5 key areas you should take into consideration – covering everything from popular game/app categories and pricing, to translation quality, culturalization, and user acquisition.
Popular game and app categories
From action to RPG (role-playing games), there are many popular titles that perform well in Japan. The monetization of so-called “gacha” games – replicating real-life toy capsule machines that reward users with exclusive collectibles – has been the main revenue stream of Japanese mobile games for a while now. However, new games are now emerging which rely less heavily on this model, suggesting new types of monetization are possible.
The need for localization of games in Japan is high, so be sure to make adjustments to your game before launching it.
Aside from the always popular productivity, tools and social/communication apps – shopping and entertainment apps tend to perform well in terms of downloads. And Japanese users are also becoming increasingly used to subscriptions, driven mainly by categories such as entertainment (music and video), dating and comics. Financial apps are also seeing a significant rise, especially as more and more mobile cashless payment operators have now entered the app market.
How to go about it
Publish your app to Google Play and you access a global audience of more than 1 billion active users worldwide. Market Finder will help you determine which countries offer the most appropriate markets for your app. You then have to make sure your app or game feels local and relevant in each, whatever their language and cultural values. And, as your user base grows, Google makes it a simple matter to just add more languages.
Yen is the only currency used in the Japanese market – and there are no denominations of it beyond the decimal point. So, 100JPY would be seen as normal by users, whereas 101.23JPY might appear strange. Consumers also tend to prefer prices with fewer digits (e.g. 990JPY is preferable to 1,000JPY).
As mentioned earlier, subscription apps are a growing trend here – buoyed by the fact that many Japanese consumers have already encountered this payment model in the pre-smartphone era. Price-wise, entertainment apps typically cost between 900-1,500JPY.
Music apps usually offer a 1-3 month free trial, followed by a monthly cost of between 500-900JPY after the trial period. Dating apps tend to offer a range of subscription options, such as per month, every 3 months, or every 6 months.
The Japanese language has a wide range of nuances in the way its written and spoken.
For example, there’s the formal speaking (“keigo”); regional dialects (“hakata-ben”, “kansai-ben” etc), and other forms of Japanese that are characteristic to a specific demographic.
Given such complexity, the context of each situation is the key to a good translation. When briefing your translator, ensure the context for your app text is clear – and be precise in whichever form you decide for each character/setting, and make sure it’s consistent throughout. This is also a wider consideration for your marketing materials, ads, etc.
Example: A senior and mentor-like character is first introduced in the game with a casual and slightly gruff tone.
The dialog on the left translates to: "That ain't right..."
While the dialog on the right translates to: "Steal is such a dirty word... I simply took it from some bad guys and gave it to the good guys."
Example: However, later in the same app, this character suddenly has a more formal tone, which feels out of character.
Current: "Please share your thoughts."
Correct: "Share your thoughts, will ya?"
As with any language translation, be aware that different UI layouts will restrict the character length. Words in English may also end up being much longer or shorter when they’re in Japanese. Some developers try to get around this potential problem by changing the font size, but this can make the game’s UI look unpolished and confusing.
Example: Comparison of wrong and right use of font
Example: Another potential issue to look out for after translation is awkward line breaks. Never start a new line mid-word, with a punctuation, or with a Japanese Particle (は、を、も、)
Be aware that if your asset does not provide the character/kanji then one kanji in the word may have a different font from the rest. There is a distinct visual feel for every font that can aid in reenforcing the feel of you app.
Last but by no means least, don’t make the mistake of using Chinese characters for Kanji. There is a noticeable difference, and users will definitely spot the error.
When preparing your app for the Japanese market, consider using local publishing entities or marketing teams to adapt its look and feel. Even if your localization appear fairly minimal, it’s vital to have a native Japanese speaker check that everything looks and sounds natural, and you’re delivering a polished user experience.
There are many ways to make your app feel more relevant to Japanese users. One way is through affiliations with seasonal events such as sakura season, golden week, or new year. You could also develop anime-like marketing assets or adopt monetization models that people will find familiar.
If you do decide to promote your app during certain times or events in the cultural calendar, a good understanding of typical user behaviour during these moments will help you plan your campaigns better.
For example, knowing that people are likely to spend more time in your app during long holidays such as new year (January), Golden Week (end of April to early May), and Silver Week (mid September), means you can adjust your marketing or in-app experiences accordingly.
It’s also fairly common for Japanese companies to pay bonuses twice a year (usually June and December). So shopping apps often run special sales campaigns during long holidays at the end of the fiscal and school year (around April), and during the school holidays in spring (March), summer (July-August) and winter (late December to new year).
Many app developers also make their app store icon stand out by tweaking the design to mark special occasions, milestones, or big updates. For example, 200万 ユーザー (“2 million users”), ー周年 (“1 year anniversary”), 大型アップデート(“Major update”.)
Via Google Play Store
In Japan, the Google Play Store is a little different to the rest of the world. For example, you can create locally-relevant deals, and also have your app featured in the ‘Deals & Promo’ section.
Pre-registration is also widely used and early access is possible. Google Play Points are available in Japan too, with users receiving
1pt for every 100JPY they spend – which can then be exchanged for various in-game items and/or Google Play Credits.
Japan is a highly-sophisticated market for online advertising, offering possibilities for deep links, ads, YouTube partnerships, and social media campaigns. Facebook and Instagram are also very popular, and Twitter is commonly used by the younger generations.
Both OOH and TV are popular advertising methods, and there are many specialist agencies who can help you with this.