Why are Japanese Companies So Far Behind in Digital Marketing?

Let me be frank, I work in Digital Marketing in Japan, and I am frustrated.

It’s 2017 and here is what I see. I see wonderful companies that have fantastic products that can sell on a global scale. Sadly, these Japanese companies are penalizing themselves with poor websites, and even poorer Digital Marketing practices. As a result, their websites are not being found, and opportunity is lost. And they can only resort to finding domestic business in Japan via word-of-mouth. It’s an epidemic for thousands of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in Japan.

Just one look at most Japanese SMB websites and the problems become immediately obvious. These websites are a headache to look at, with lots of random text, many columns, and many small images. The eye does not know where to focus. Many of the websites look like they have designs left over from the 1990’s. Many of them do not employ responsive design. As a result they do not display well on mobile devices.

These websites are not geared to the 1st time visitor at all. Most savvy Digital Marketers will tell you that 90% of your website should be earmarked for the 1st time visitor. However, I see valuable screen real estate wasted by “message from the CEO”, obscure announcements, earnings reports, the stock price, CSR, and something called “sustainability”. Let’s face the reality folks, the 1st-time visitor does not care about these things. What they really care about is “does your product or service solve my problems?”.

Many websites in Japan use Sliders (AKA Slide Shows), that cycle images every 3 to 4 seconds. A/B tests have shown that Slide Shows distract users from the goal, and are very poor at conversions. But most websites for SMBs still use them.

And these websites don’t use modern lead capture techniques. I don’t see many light boxes, content extenders, nor offers of free content. Global contents (blogs, infographics & video) are either non-existant, or in Japanese only. And not targeted to specific keywords. And few companies track content results in analytics.

While Marketing Automation packages such as Marketo and Hubspot are now being adopted in Japan, most Japanese companies are way behind their European and American counterparts in using Marketing Automation to improve lead capture. No email drip sequences based on how they interacted with your content. And no lead scoring to prioritize your salesmen’s time.

How Did This Happen?

In his book, Make It Happen (Japanese Companies Need to Elevate Marketing as a Core Function to Succeed Outside Japan), Robert E. Peterson talks about the origins of Marketing in the Japanese Language. Bob-san, as he is known in Japan, is a marketing executive who worked at Saatchi & Saatchi. Over the course of three decades, he has helped Japanese companies such as Toyota be successful globally. In his book, he points out that there are Japanese words for Sales (営業), and Product Development (開発). And traditionally, the members of the Sales and Product groups have been the “rock stars” of the company.

However, there is no equivalent Japanese word for “Marketing”. Instead, they use the phonetic-sized English equivalent of “ma-ketingu” (マーケティング). It’s no wonder, that the Marketing Team plays second fiddle to Sales and Products. The marketing department usually reports up via the sale organization, and it just seen as an appendage to Sales. And few companies have a CMO, or Chief Marketing Officer, in Japan. And few SMBs have a “growth hacker” or equivalent.

These are just general problems of Marketing in general in Japan. The problems are amplified in the Digital Marketing space. Still, many companies don’t prioritize the need to improve their Web Marketing skills.

To understand this, you need to go back to the origins of Japanese business culture. Japan has always had a very “Relationship-Based” business culture. Maintaining relationships is paramount. By comparison, most Western Business cultures are “Task-Based”. Of course, relationships are important as well in the US and Europe, but when compared to Japan, they tend to focus on the task at hand.

Let’s examine what this means for Digital Marketing. When a Japanese business person is looking for a new tool, and a new solution, or new business contact, they reach out to there friends or associates. In person referrals, and introductions are the norm here. However, when an equivalent business person from the USA or Europe is looking for the same, they tend to open up Google, do a search, check out company websites, read online reviews, then contact the top 3. They tend to see things in more logical and task-based manner.

The result of all this is many Japanese companies still rely on word-of-mouth and relationships, and fail to understand the value of using Digital Marketing. As a result, they fail to establish a global “Online Presence”. And since the visitors never arrive, and the leads never come, they fail to realize that they are losing millions of dollars or billions of Yen per year. A very sad state indeed.


Jeff Crawford is Founder and Lead Consultant of JC Digital Consulting, a Digital Marketing agency based in Tokyo Japan. JC Digital helps foreign companies enter Japan, as we as helping Japanese companies appeal to a foreign audience. They specialize in SEO, PPC Advertising, Analytics and more.