MySpace Faces Stiff Competition in Japan

The Associated Press
Friday, February 16, 2007; 12:15 AM

TOKYO -- Visit Japan's top social-networking site, the 8-million-strong "Mixi," and you'll see prim, organized columns and boxes of stamp-size photos _ not the flashy text and teen-magazine-like layout of its American counterpart, The difference in appearance between the two online hangouts reflects a broader clash of cultures _ and illustrates the challenge News Corp.'s MySpace faces as it jumps into the Japanese market.

Mixi knows how to thrive off the nation's cliquish culture so different from the aggressive me-orientation prevalent in American culture.

"MySpace is about me, me, me, and look at me and look at me and look at me," said Tony Elison, senior vice president at Viacom International Japan, which is offering its own Japanese-language social networking service here. "In Mixi, it's not all about me. It's all about us."

Mixi Inc. President Kenji Kasahara, 31, and others say the services merely reflect the cultural differences.

While self-assertion is quick and direct on MySpace, with posted profiles upfront about personal views, Japanese tend to be more reserved and prefer to gradually get to know each other.

The messages on Mixi are surprisingly positive: You look great. It's so nice seeing you. I feel the same way. Kasahara calls it a "friendly mood that values harmony."

"I feel people speak their minds on MySpace," he said. "Japanese tend to like peaceful communication. We're often told how heartwarming Mixi is."

That doesn't mean MySpace won't try to compete. Analysts say MySpace, which arrived in Japan in November, has a chance for success because of its 50-50 partnership with Japanese Internet company Softbank Corp., which owns a part of Yahoo Japan and took over Vodafone's mobile business in Japan last year.

"The key is having a viable mobile strategy for MySpace in Japan," Ko Orita, a Seattle-based advertising consultant who gives advice on U.S.-Japan partnerships in the online media industry. "MySpace's openness has a very good application if you are a musician or a filmmaker and promote your content."

MySpace allows anyone with a valid e-mail address to sign up for free accounts. By contrast, Mixi requires an introduction from someone who is already a Mixi member, a bit like winning entry to an old-style club in this society long reputed as guarded against outsiders.

That feature, designed to give a sense of security and in-group feeling, has been critical in Mixi's success among shy and conformity-driven Japanese. Mixi soundly defeats domestic social networking rivals as well as all other sites except Yahoo and Google.

Understanding Mixi's appeal is easy when you watch Jun Yamagishi, a 27-year-old salesman, during his lunch break. He connects with old friends casually and less obtrusively than with e-mail or telephone calls, which are better for more direct communication.

"It's been really easy to be able to keep in touch with all my friends," said Yamagishi, who checks Mixi every other day to see what everyone is saying. "I find Mixi really helpful, really useful for life."

Meeting friends of friends is just a click away on Mixi. Simply send a message and the person will either accept or reject it. Acceptance means Yamagishi has another friend.

The replies get forwarded to Yamagishi's cell phone through Mixi's mobile service that started in December. Yamagishi has also joined about 100 "communities," or clusters of Mixi members who gather around common interests, from orchid-growing to snowboarding.

Mixi has evolved to be first and foremost a communication tool for people who are already friends, rather than an opportunity to meet new people or to express yourself _ both widespread goals on MySpace. (Smaller U.S. services such as Facebook also encourage in-group networking. Facebook has no Japanese-language version.)

Launched in 2004, Mixi arrived early and used that advantage to grow into a successful service used by one in every three Japanese in their 20s.

Kasahara dismisses MySpace's arrival with a nonchalant shrug.

"It's not going to be easy for them to increase market share in Japan," the Mixi president said in a recent interview. "This tends to be a winner-take-all market, and also-rans have a hard time. No one is going to want to join (a social-networking site) that their friends aren't in."

Kasahara says Mixi is even considering challenging MySpace's turf abroad, although he said there are now no specific plans. South Korea's Cyworld Inc. launched a U.S. version of the site in August, though its millions of users are still mostly in Asia.

Mixi is projecting 4.8 billion yen ($40 million) in sales, mostly advertising revenue, for the fiscal year through March, more than double what it made the previous year. Its initial public offering last year earned more than 6 billion yen ($50 million), catapulting Kasahara to dot-com stardom.

Fumi Yamazaki at Technorati Japan, a blogging search company, isn't too upbeat about MySpace's chances in Japan as people usually don't want to switch social-networking services.

"Mixi and MySpace may be able to appeal to different needs," she said. "But there are some hurdles MySpace needs to overcome."

Even MySpace Japan Vice President Naoko Ando acknowledged MySpace isn't about to put Mixi out of business, but she believes Japanese can use both.

Ando is hoping that Japanese may want to check out American musicians, who offer tunes, messages and virtual friendships on MySpace. The site plans to use its Softbank partnership to sign on Japanese artists.

MySpace also has strengths in video sharing. It's among the leading sites where users post video clips, but MySpace does not yet offer video sharing in its Japanese service and is trying to win over copyright protection groups here, said Softbank spokesman Takeaki Nukii. Mixi started offering video sharing earlier this month.

The look and mood of MySpace's Japanese site, however, will not differ from the American original.

MySpace claims it has drawn more than a 100 million people worldwide, including thousands of Japanese who already used MySpace in English, according to the company. Softbank declines to say how many have subscribed to the Japanese version of the site

Michiko Yoshida, who studies social networking at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, thinks MySpace's emphasis on self-assertion will have only niche appeal in Japan, but she also believes people may be slowly outgrowing Mixi.

"There may be a lot of information," said Yoshida. "But people are starting to realize that much of it is simply garbage."

© 2007 The Associated Press