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Exporting Japanese Privacy

Omri Reis

Senior Creative Strategist

AKQA Tokyo


Exporting Japanese Privacy

It seems recently like Facebook is shouting at us from every newsfeed, website, and op-ed that the future is private: that the TV-era living room will digitally rise from the dead to reclaim our attention, and soon private conversation will once again supersede the public sphere, substituting intimate chats and perishable stories for the “old” (or fake) news that currently monopolizes our time. Before long, so this utopian vision goes, we will sink into a dreamlike existence of timeless memories and a 15-second news cycle dominated by personal brands and influencers.


Japan has always had a unique take on privacy. Traditionally, public places like bathhouses have teemed with high-value private information, while the formal broadsheets delivered tame, agreeable headlines. Tabloids circulated sensationalism, gossip, and rumor while mainstream TV sought mainly to provide national unity, nostalgia, and comic relief. The overwhelming success of anonymity on the Japanese Web, with Wikipedia, Ameblog, and Twitter, is a testament to both privacy’s liberating potential and to the limitations of Japanese free speech norms.


When it comes to consumer privacy in Japan, market data is unequivocal. According to Reuters, Japan leads the world in news consumption, but places dead last in sharing, commenting, and engaging with news content on social media. Another study, by GFK, found that Japanese users are the least likely globally to share private information with brands in exchange for benefits or rewards. Users in Japan still draw a sharp line between private and public information - a line that dictates their communication behavior and their interactions with brands.


When thinking about brands in Japan, it’s easy to trace the same guiding principle. Brands that typically “get it” make sure to cater to Japanese users’ privacy demands: the only Japanese unicorn, Mercari, has a successful anonymous delivery option, as well as anonymous seller accounts. Twitter’s notorious anonymity is the engine driving Japan’s social trends and conversations, and even games like Hearthstone promise Japanese users to become “legends” - unbeknownst, of course, to their co-workers, friends, and family. The national messaging service LINE enforces strict authentication and identification standards, while setting 1-on-1 communication with brands as its default.


In all of these, Japan has long been an outlier. Global brands have been tirelessly trying to “liberate” Japanese speech, empower self-expression, and “connect” people. But today, companies like Google and Facebook are finding out that inspiration works both ways, as Japan’s unique conception of privacy is slowly gaining relevance in other markets. Facebook is attempting through stories and private chats to facilitate closer interaction, deprioritize public pages, and limit campaign targeting options. Brands are discovering that sometimes maintaining thoughtful, calculated distance is more credible than a close friendship, and that serving needs can be a better strategy than creating wants.


With the GDPR as his North Star, Mark Zuckerberg will dictate the framework and the space for brands to play in. But unlike public corporate leviathans, brands are obliged to understand what privacy actually means in a cultural context: to discern when is it empowering and when is it abusive; when is it liberating and when is it plainly impolite. With these understandings, brands can create mutual value and establish abiding respect with their consumers.


Both time and privacy are relative, and the future cannot always be absolutely “more private” or “less private” than the past. It is time for Japanese brands to not only introduce international privacy standards into their offerings, but to become a voice in the global conversation on how the new privacy should look like. If Europe can, why not Japan?