In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry — with the help of a fleet of intimidating warships — forced Japan to end 200 years of isolation, during which it had resisted the trappings of the West, and open its borders to diplomacy and trade with the United States. More than a century and a half later, the Far Eastern island nation once again would succumb to Western influence and innovation long after the rest of the developed world.
This time, change would come in the form of smartphones.
The shift toward mobile that has driven the digital revolution in much of the world has finally reached the shores of Japan — and Japan’s online user experience is changing dramatically.
Among the Last Industrialized Holdouts, Japan is Now a (Sort of) Smartphone Country
Japan, long reliant on flip phones, now counts more than 50 percent of its population as smartphone users, up from just a quarter as recently as 2012. Although the Japanese are late to the smartphone game, they are quickly gaining ground, so much so that the “dumbwalking” phenomenon — long a common annoyance among Western pedestrians — is now plaguing Japan. It appears that smartphone penetration may have peaked, as the Japanese stubbornly continue to cling to their peculiar obsession with flip phones. But with more than half the country now online with smart mobile devices, the changes are unmistakable.
As the Smartphone Proliferates, PC Browsing Plummets
Following a trend seen in the United States and Europe when the West went mobile, Japan is now realizing that when smartphones enter the equation, PC connections disappear. Desktop traffic declined at a rate of between 10 and 20 percent across Japan’s most popular websites in 2014 alone. When it comes to mobile on the nation’s most popular sites, however, traffic was up by 34 percent. The number of app users jumped by 32 percent. So, as smartphones spread across the islands, more Japanese use apps and mobile devices to get online as fewer use their old computers.
The Future of the User Experience in Japan
The most obvious change in user experience will be in the dramatic shift toward mobile by retailers and social media networks. This has already been foreshadowed by the fact that for some online retailers, mobile traffic has increased by as much as 60 percent since smartphones took off. The two largest social networks saw a 42 percent increase in mobile traffic as well as an increase in product promotion and sales directly through Facebook. Even if half of Japan continues to insist on using flip phones, the 50 percent that has switched over to smartphones are enough of a market for social media and eCommerce sites to adjust their UX strategies.
As Japan becomes a smartphone-primary country, the biggest impact will first be felt by retailers and social networks, changing how the country shops, communicates and connects. This change is already being felt by Japan’s most popular online destinations. Whether mobile as the primary online device will ever truly catch on is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: Japan is historically slow to embrace change, but when it does, it often bursts out of its slumber to lead the world into the next generation of technical innovation.
Nick Rojas – Guest Contributor
Nick Rojas is a journalist, business consultant, and amateur chef. Between taking his dog Presto on long walks and travelling between Los Angeles and Chicago, he has a busy life. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, he loves to write. To get in touch with Nick, you can follow him on Twitter: @nickarojas
Photo by: Shinichi Higashi