“Facebook does face a challenge in Japan,” said Shigenori Suzuki, a Tokyo-based analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings. “There are powerful rivals, and then there’s the question of Japanese Web culture.”
Taro Kodama, Facebook’s manager for Japan, referred questions to the United States, where a spokeswoman, Kumiko Hidaka, did not respond to requests for comment.
One key to the growth that might help justify the $50 billion valuation that Goldman’s planned investment placed on Facebook would be to expand its presence in Japan. The overall online advertising market in the country had sales of 706.9 billion yen ($8.5 billion) in 2009. (Someday China could present another big growth opportunity. But, for now, government censors there block access to Facebook.)
Mr. Zuckerberg has promised to address the Japan gap. But it will not be easy.
To begin with, each of Japan’s own social networking sites, though no longer growing at the breakneck pace of the past few years, has at least 10 times as many users as Facebook, which was introduced in Japanese in mid-2008.
Most similar to Facebook is Mixi, started in 2004. Users post photographs, share comments and links, and interact on community pages that have become huge forums based on themes as diverse as recipe-sharing and Michael Jackson. Mixi has more than 21.6 million members.
Fast-growing Gree, which overtook Mixi this year with nearly 22.5 million registered users, has expanded by buttressing a popular game platform for mobile phones that offers free games, which users play with manga-style avatars; fancy outfits or tools for games are available for a fee.
Mobage-town, which has almost 21.7 million users, offers a similar combination of avatars, games and accessories. It also lets users earn virtual gaming money by clicking on advertisers’ Web sites.
Now, all three sites are starting to incorporate elements of Facebook — like allowing third-party developers to make apps for the sites — giving Japanese users little reason to switch.
Mixi, meanwhile, has been adapting some techniques of other popular Silicon Valley start-ups. Since late 2009, for example, Mixi users have been able to send short, real-time messages with a maximum of 150 characters, akin to Twitter, the popular microblogging service.
Such flourishes have not kept many Japanese consumers from taking to Twitter, which is catching on here at a speed Facebook may envy. A partnership with Digital Garage, a local Internet and mobile services company, has touched off a surge in Twitter users, who numbered about 10 million in Japan in July, according to Nielsen Online NetView. But Twitter does not require users to reveal their identities.
Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg are about to get a blast of publicity in Japan, although perhaps not of the most positive sort. “The Social Network,” the movie that presents a less-than-flattering portrayal of Mr. Zuckerberg, opens in Japan this week.