Facebook and social interaction in Japan


Nearly 50% of the U.S. population keeps a Facebook account. Comparatively speaking, there are far fewer Japanese users, with Facebook recording just 3.6% penetration here.

Even so, the number of Japanese Facebook users has spiked by over 76% in the last six months, accounting for over 2 million new users, according to the SocialBakers social media tracking website.

Like a lot of 20-something Americans, I’ve been using Facebook since registration required a college ID, and I witnessed its enormous expansion not through breathless news stories proclaiming its meteoric rise, but through rapid changes in the virtual environment of Facebook itself. My first indication that Facebook was evolving was when my mother sent me a friend request. Followed by grandma, mom’s boyfriend and my young cousin. After that, I half expected the family dog to send me a friend request.

But the first time I realized Facebook’s plans for world domination was when I received an invitation from the development team to help translate the software into Japanese. A few months later, a language tab appeared. Suddenly, what was once the domain of Westerners and a few clued-in Japanese seemed like an increasingly global phenomenon.

Social networking isn’t new to Japan. Mixi, Japan’s native social networking system (SNS), enjoys great popularity to this day, despite Facebook looming on the horizon. What’s interesting is how strikingly different the two systems function.

Mixi seems specifically tailored to Japanese tastes. Privacy is key - many users elect an abstract representation for their profile photo, rather than an actual likeness, most create a handle rather than use their real name, and, perhaps most significantly, one can see everyone that has visited their profile with the “ashi ato” (footprints) feature. Additionally, elements of your profile can be password protected or restricted to “friends only.”

These features allow a user to keep their actual persona much less visible to those outside of their social circle – perhaps resembling a virtual incarnation of the classic “uchi/soto” social dynamic in Japan.

By contrast, Facebook’s security features are notoriously difficult to navigate. And Facebook until recently required users to register with something resembling a given name – names that sounded like jokes or obvious aliases were weeded out by the software. As a result, most in the Facebook community use their real name on their profile pages. Users also tend to set their profile photo to an actual likeness, which may be a carry-over from Facebook’s original purpose as a kind of “friend finder” that let you hook up with classmates, friends of friends, etc.

Although the rules are not so cut-and-dry anymore, most new users seem to follow the lead of the more established ones, creating an environment where your on-screen avatar is more or less indistinguishable from the real you – a major difference over Mixi and something of a paradox in privacy-obsessed Japan.

Facebook is a massive and influential creature. In the U.S., it’s almost treated as a political entity by the media, and much has been made concerning Facebook’s role in the gradual merging of our online and real-life personas.

So, the question is, as more and more Japanese jump into the Facebook fray, how will it influence social interaction?

Facebook is such a big presence in many American’s lives that one is all but obligated to accept friend requests from anyone they see with any frequency in the real world. As a result, many Facebook users end up “friending” co-workers, bosses, family members, clients and others, and these people are then invariably able to peer into aspects of one’s life they were previously unable to see or get involved in. This mixing of social circles inevitably causes problems for some Facebook users, as a Japanese friend related to me recently:

“I’ve had a [Facebook] profile since I lived abroad years ago,” she said. “But I got a friend request from a co-worker in Japan recently. After seeing all the foreign friends on my profile, she started talking around the office about my foreign acquaintances. When my boss, who is older and very conservative, heard of this, he was very disapproving.”

I’ve always found the Japanese to be shy about mixing social groups. I’ve met the families, bosses and co-workers of only a very few Japanese friends, and bringing an uninvited guest to, say, a drinking party is a faux pax on a much different level than it is in the West, where it is sometimes even encouraged.

So, as Facebook attracts more and more Japanese users, will we see a wearing down of Japan’s more rigid social culture?

Only time will tell, but as I looked around and saw a surprising number of co-workers surfing the telltale blue and white Facebook homepage the other day, it occurred to me that maybe it’s a question worth asking.

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

Actually, Mixi did away with its ashiato feature several months ago, and now just offers users a once-weekly "digest" of visitors to their pages. This generated quite a reaction--with something like 15% of registered users joining a "Bring Back the Ashiato Function!" community--but Mixi held fast, apparently bowing to majority opinion that the function itself was kind of creepy and not in the spirit of a new, more "open" Mixi community.

Most of my Japanese friends on Mixi don't use Facebook, and most of the ones who never got on Mixi (which hasn't seemed to benefit much from switching from invitation-only to an unrestricted format) have turned up on Facebook. So maybe it's less of a social shift taking place than a matter of one being seen as more appealing than the other to different user bases. The ability to fudge one's identity on MIxi certainly makes it more palatable to Japanese hoping to maintain some distinction between their online private and public/work lives.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I do not use Mixi as I find it creepy. Too many guys just want to see me in a bathing suit at the beach surfing. And I do not like Facebook as too much no privacy. The only forum I chat in is here. Other than that I like real life. Face to face you cannot hide.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Facebook and the people of Japan = some interesting insights into "uchi/soto" here. One of my colleagues is on FB and when I found out about this I offered to be friends. She thought about it for .2 seconds and asked one question: is anyone else from our workplace friends with you? I said a few other co-workers had befriended me and she politely, yet firmly refused. No idea what "secrets" she has, but I guess she didn't want others at work to know more about her that they already did. She saw my disappointment and apologized by saying that if it were only me, it would be fine, but she is only friends with non-Japanese (she'd lived abroad from a few years recently) and I guess that even in the 21st century she worried what others would think about her knowing so many non-Japanese. God forbid! Worst part is everyone is more or less friends with and collaborating with non-Japanese from around the world. So I still don't get it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I guess I'm lucky, most of my Japanese friends on Facebook aren't corporate salaryman types--a lot of IT entrepreneurs and SME types, a lot of people with overseas experience--and don't seem to have a problem with the kind of social paranoia so many other Japanese apparently deal with. On Mixi, though, about half of my "friends" (in the SNS sense) are gay, and wouldn't think of moving to a more open platform where they might risk running into people from work or other parts of their life they keep walled off from their sexuality. Heck, they even use their Mixi aliases (handles) when socializing offline!!

This is the first time, though, that I've heard of people worried about being found out as having "too many" non-Japanese friends, virtual or otherwise (and how many is "too many" anyway??). Maybe I just run with a somewhat more progressive crowd, but it sounds like an interesting topic for future conversation...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Godan, on Facebook you can see Friends of Friends. If your colleague accepts you as a Friend, your work Friends can see that she is on Facebook and may want her to become a friend. That could include your and her boss. That a few other colleagues have befriended you would then seem to her to be a big negative. She wants to keep her Facebook for Friends who are friends and separate her private life from her work life, which may be a rather foreign idea in Japan where work life is often a person's whole life.

JapanGal, you are right about Facebook and privacy. Many people display too much information on Facebook. Many were surprised to find their mobile phone numbers were displayed by default. Publicising all your information on Facebook these days could even lead to identity theft, which is a serious problem if it happens.

Facebook is becoming a great way for people to keep in touch and swap information. It did provide a lot of support and helped back in March.

It should be noted that it is a great way to communicate for people who want to overthrow their government as we have seen in some Arab countries.

I have found an interesting feature is that I have got in touch with old friends through it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I also dislike SNS. I quit Japanese Cyworld because some creep scrapped all photos with me there. I locked almost all albums for "friends only" and then the perv came suddenly with different ID and profile and offered to be friends. The admins caught him immediately, but it was over for me there. And Farcebook is even worse. The "friends of friends " feature bares you to people you don't even know. If I want to share something with my friend A, why would all her friends learn about it too? Especially the photos-they can be easily downloaded by right click and "save as". The main reason I quit FB was this privacy issue. And the most strange thing is that people just don't understand why would anyone lock their personal info, especially your child's photos and info on her-try to explain this to someone who has never had children or lives in a country that basically doesn't have problems with pervs. Try to explain the privacy issue to someone who lives in a country where ID theft is very uncommon. Try to explain to your friends that all these cute cards, hugs, games, kisses they keep sending you as a token of friendship aren't that safe at all. Not only they won't understand you, but your image will suffer badly. Japanese friends I had on FB were very private too, and I believe that this uchi/soto thing has something to do with that. But I also think that FB itself was created based on the Western idea for friends and friends circles, while Japanese have somewhat different idea about friends-how close a friend is and what info you actually exchange with this friend.They have different levels of uchi and soto, as well as different levels of human relationships.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Sasoriza SEP03. 2011 - 11:54AM JST

But I also think that FB itself was created based on the Western idea for friends and friends circles, while Japanese have somewhat different idea about friends-how close a friend is and what info you actually exchange with this friend.They have different levels of uchi and soto, as well as different levels of human relationships.

Yes, you've got it. It is just a cultural thing. Shouldn't pose a hindrance for integration and making friends once you understand it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Best is to get out of your house and meet real people face to face. There are many out there. That is how I met my partner for life!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Facejob, Meatspace and Twatter are for people who want attention and stalk others, the only benefit out of it is PR promotional usage for a business, msn etc is still better and more discreet against potential stalkers..

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

It's also a fad that will die out in time, Meatspace and others died out

0 ( +0 / -0 )

No thanks to both of them. However, if you are marketing a product and are trying to brand yourself, Facebook can be a pretty effective means of doing that, so long as you keep it professional, and in line with the brand you are trying to create.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Even Facebook is gonna copy Google Plus' different "circles," haha.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I use both services although pretty infrequently, but I have definitely noticed a huge spike in Japanese Facebookers. What I really find interesting is that my japanese friends that also use both services have radically different top pages for each service. I've also noticed that when meeting people out on the town, I definitely get asked the "Facebook yatteru?" line way more often than the same for Mixi these days

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Much better article from Mr Oakland. The differences between Mixi and Facebook are interesting as they are very similar to social traits in Japan and the west.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

At least with Mixi they respect privacy and dont have a welcome mat for stalkers..

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This was a better article, Mike.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I didn't realise that Facebook only operated in Japan and America, thanks Mike.

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

Incredibly, as an American, I manage to get by without a Facebook account.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Incredibly, as an American, I manage to get by without a Facebook account.

Lol, I'm not American, but I deleted mine earlier this year. I found it to be a colossal waste of space. The amount of people using it though is scary, and it deserves to be looked into.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I foolishly joined Facebook two years ago. Listed my college. Biggest mistake of my life. Thousands and thousands of people who have graduated from the same college (over the past 40 years!) show up. Feelers from, say, Australia ("Are you the [JB] who ....?" "What? OMG!," I think. I don't know (or care about) any of them. I quickly (intentionally) forgot my password. Facebook promised me a new one "within a week or so." Two years later, nothing. So now I can't unsubscribe. I don't know or care what's piling up on my (totally wasted) Facebook site. I just want me and my profile outa there! I'm a laser--beam kinda guy, not a buck-shot (scatter-shot) multi-tasker. Quality over quantity. Help me, Rhonda .... I'm not biologically Japanese, but maybe they've got something there ...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Facebook was a godsend after 3/11 when my Internet connection was down for days . My son was able to post that we were OK, and friends/family around the world who saw that were able to pass it on to other friends/family. Saved lots of people a lot of unnecessary worry.

Users also tend to set their profile photo to an actual likeness

I wondered about that, and checked my own friends. Over 40% either have no profile pic at all, or have some totally unidentifiable image, or an image that only someone who knows them would recognise. Those who do use a recognisable picture of themselves tend to be the young (under 30) or the old (over 70). The in-betweenies are more likely, in my personal experience, to 'hide'.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Cleo, that may well be true but most Facebook users are indeed under 30, and people between 30 and 70 are in that in between stage in normal life too of showing off their image because they think it's great and showing it off cos they just don't give a **** anymore.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

oikawa - According to this page - - the breakdown of global FB users by age is

13-17: 20.6%

18-25: 25.8%

26-35: 26.1%

35-44: 14.9%

45-54: 8.0%

55-64: 4.6%

Unfortunately we don't have a convenient under 30/over 30 split, but while we can safely assume that the under-30s account for more than half, the numbers don't appear to be as overwhelmingly disparate as one might imagine. Lots of oldies on FB are there to keep up with their grandkids, share photos of grandkids with friends, etc.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Cleo, that's still about 50% aged 13-30, which as only 13 years put of about 70 is quite a disproportionate percentage. Also if you factor in only people who use it regularly enough to be considered users at all I expect the percentage would be even higher.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

oikawa - I know it's about 50%, that's what I said. Before I looked up the figures I though it would be much more heavily weighted towards the younger end. Whether you see it as 'still about 50%' or 'only about 50%' depends on your outlook, I suppose.

How often people use FB, whether they are 'real' users or not doesn't alter my observation on the kind of profile picture people tend to choose. Most of my FB friends between the ages of 30 and 70 tend not to use readily identifiable pictures. That could be a reflection of their ages, or it could be a reflection of the kind of people I choose as friends....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

cleo; some people think that those of middle age or older can't comprehend things like Facebook. Evven my mum and dad are on there and dad is almost seventy.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

facebook has come a long way with the privacy settings. I almost wonder if they looked to Mixi for a couple of cues. but it's almost made things even creepier. Only people that have viewed your profile recently get put on your newsfeed, so now you can kind of infer whose been watching you. It's also alarming when you look at someone whose profile is locked but weird elements are visible to everyone like one single photo album and their university or something like that.

stalker potential is definitely much higher on facebook than mixi.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

HumanTarget; if you don't like do not use. Otherwise human defences to guard against potential stalking.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Steve, my friend's Mum is pushing 90, not as mobile as she used to be and she finds FB invaluable for keeping in touch with friends in similar circumstances who find reading and writing old-fashioned paper letters a bind (failing eyesight, shaking hands...) and for keeping up with the exploits of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

It isn't all about young things being cool.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

cleo, the point i was trying to make was it's not just under-30s, it's only 13-30, 17 years out of 70 odd or so, and probably about 55% being allocated to 13/70 and say 45% being allocated to 53/70 is quite an unbalanced weighting. i'm just surprised you're surprised that's all. perhaps you were expecting the figures to be even more skewed but as you said you know a lot of oldies who use it. Having said that it would be interesting to see the same breakdown but with figures for people who were considered "active users". you can't shut down a facebook account, and there are a lot of people who hardly ever use it after opening an account

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I signed up after 3/11 as a friend said a bunch of people were asking about me, any how, now I rarely visit, and frankly it seems potentially much more harmful than helpful. Went back & looked at a few posts & thought how it cud hurt if potential employers read it, what people I work with(not co-workers) might think & even though it was pretty boring stuff I cud easily see how it could come back to haunt you

So I am begging off & sticking with email 99.999% of the time, you all have been warned LOL.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I don't know where people get this idea from that Facebook friends aren't real friends. For those of us who live away from our home countries, it's a godsend for maintaining links with friends that we might only get to see once a month or less. The fact is that once one becomes an adult, there often isn't actually a lot of "news" in one's life (work, cook, clean - same old, same old), so it often seems like there isn't enough material for an e-mail to friends, but Facebook facilitates casual, everyday interaction that keeps the channels of communication open, as well as providing a place to post one's photos.

And as Cleo said, it's also helpful in times of disaster.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

*The fact is that once one becomes an adult, there often isn't actually a lot of "news" in one's life (work, cook, clean - same old, same old), so it often seems like there isn't enough material for an e-mail to friends,***

Eleanor dear, kindly speak for yourself.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

SNS create a new level of personal responsibility for the pieces of information one offers on the web. If You post personal information that no one is supposed to see, then it's clearly Your own fault. If friends put up embarrassing photos of You, then You know the wrong people. This risk is not new. Public embarrassment through careless friends predates facebook.

In fact it is very valuable if You have a network of loose acquaintances and friends all across the globe. With the rise of the web and globalisation, this is the reality for large parts of the educated population. Of course You can also confine Your horizon to Your immediate environs. Neither is a direct hindrance for a happy and safe life.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Get out of your house and meet real people.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Much better article Mike. Though FB was in many other languages before it came to Japan, if that was the first you noticed you need to look around a bit more.... or maybe just the sentence was badly expressed. I find this difference between FB and Mixi fascinating, obviously it boils down to the cultural differences, so the implication is whether FB will influence Japanese culture enough to change peoples usage of it (ie, so they dont use it like mixi with avatar pictures). FB being able to influence culture... scarey no? Not necessarily a bad thing, just shows how influential the thing is.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

To all those who feel safer with Mixi in terms of privacy: what will happen to your personal data when Mixi gets bought by another company?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

One more remark about Facebook. Probably all of you know the "like" buttons which are spreading like an epidemic all over the web. These buttons are used by Facebook to track all pages you have visited. You don't need to be logged in to Facebook, you don't need to klick the button and deleting cookies doesn't help either. Facebook can even track you when you're not a Facebook member at all and in some cases the collected data will be enough to identify you personally (whether or not you believe Facebook tries to identify you depends on your personal paranoia. Since they also construct profiles of non-Facebook-members through data delivered by their members, my paranoia level is close to the maximum).

Except cookies, the technique Facebook uses to track you is called fingerprinting. Although not 100% perfect, it can recognize most people. Especially foreigners in Japan are easy targets for fingerprinting. For anybody who wants to test it him/herself, you can do that on . Please note that some of their algorithms are rather crude and they do not use all available information, hence real-world recognition rates are higher.

For those who want to protect themselves and do not use Facebook at all, it is best to filter all it's domains and/or IP addresses in your router of firewall. If you are a Facebook user and do not want to be tracked by the buttons, you can do something like this: All those who want to keep the Facebook buttons, well, now you know that big brother is watching you.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites