Twitter is blocked in China. Sina Weibo is working on an English-language version and has other languages in the works. But the first real test of whether Sina Weibo has any potential outside of Chinese-language users should be Japan.

Sina has announced that Japanese firm FindJapan will serve as its partner to introduce Weibo to Japan. FindJapan will act as an agent to help local Japanese companies and public figures verify their accounts, as well as provide maintain a and further maintenance services including translation and posting of contents.

Japan is seen as Sina Weibo’s first major move outside of China since its launch in late 2009. Japan is the primary choice for an experimental ground as Chinese and Japanese culture share more than a few similarities. Japan is a more neutral battlefield (than the US) in which to test Weibo’s chances against Twitter, which has been highly successful there (unlike Facebook).

Let’s examine how foreign social networks have fared in Japan.

A Harsh Climate for Most Foreign Social Networks, Though Twitter Thrives

Japan’s social network universe is not easily accessible for foreigners. Registration often requires real Japanese identification or residency. Japan’s leading online SNS, Mixi, terminated registration of foreign users in 2008. To sign up for the service now, you are required to click a confirmation link on a mobile phone using local networks (NTT Docomo or Softbank). So you can imagine foreigners are not especially welcome.

Facebook Japan launched in July 2008. Although Facebook dominates most of the world, the results in Japan have not been promising. the result is not promising. Users have struggled to adapt to Facebook’s ‘overwhelming’ and ‘non-standard’ interface–adding apps in browsers is simply not appealing to many Japanese users. Almost 3 years later, Facebook Navi was launched in June of this year to help ease Japanese users into Facebook.

Another SNS provider that became an #epicfail in Japan is Yahoo Days (Yahoo 360 in U.S), which faces imminent closure in Japan this year, with some core functions being shut down this month.

Nor has Baidu, another Chinese firm to enter the Japanese market citing cultural similarities, had any success whatsoever.

On the other hand, Twitter is extremely successful in Japan. The post #numbers on the official Twitter Blog notes that Japan holds the record highest tweets per second with 6939 tweets just 4 seconds after midnight for the 2011 New Year. Twitter’s simple interface and accessibility on mobile devices are what won it the day for it in Japan.

Why Did Sina Start in Japan?

Why did Sina start off its Weibo international campaign in Japan instead of other Asia Pacific countries? And here’s Sina’s side of story, as sourced from a question on Zhihu.com (China’s Quora): How do you view Sina Weibo’s expansion in Japan?:

There is clearly a demand among Japanese companies, the tourism board, celebrities and the country itself to promote a positive image [in China]. In Japan, Mixi’s coverage is far more extensive than Facebook, but people don’t use microblogs as much [compared to Mixi], but [we believe] there will be many corporations and organizations as users.

Sina Weibo’s Advantages in Japan

Functionality-wise Sina Weibo does have a number of advantages that Facebook does not:

  1. Simple interface – Sina Weibo’s interface is clean and by Japanese standards in my opinion is simple enough.
  2. Strong mobile support – Japanese internet users rely heavily on mobile devices, one of Sina Weibo’s strengths. During the early stages of Weibo, open platform developers were heavily focused on mobile clients. Each has gone through numerous updates to perfect their functionality, including LBS check-in and Instagram-like photo-sharing features.
  3. Cute – many people may not understand ,but Japanese are hugely fond of cute things, and Sina Weibo’s emoticons offers exactly that.
  4. Multi-media support – culturally Chinese and Japanese users share a similar passion for online photo- and video-sharing. Sina Weibo’s superior multi-media support is a distinct advantage over Twitter.
  5. Japanese Stars on Weibo – Sina has already signed up some Japanese stars, that can help draw in an initial seed group of users.

Japan is the first foreign battleground for Sina to test Weibo. I believe Sina’s team will give Twitter a hard fight, because it executes blazingly fast while maintaining fair quality. It’s fortune should be revealing as to Weibo’s chances worldwide.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RHGPRYHF5VHVVWMKFLQB3TN2UU jim

    I thought Find Japan was going promote the Chinese weibo.com website  as an opportunity for Japanese companies to market themselves in China directly to the weibo.com users. The Japanese already have immensely popular Japanese social networks of their own in Japan, such as mixi.com for  example. Weibo.com would be rather late on the scene in Japan just as Facebook or Twitter would be in China .

  • http://twitter.com/DonSunny46664 Sunny Ye

    Sina has admitted the possibility of launching a Japanese version Weibo.com, the English version is pretty much ready, so they are exploring potential grounds for international expansion, which might be more profitable in the long run because the Chinese internet is simply to fragmented with intense competitions from larger giants like Tencent.

    In my opinion it’s never too late to be on the scene if you have a good product, and functionality wise Weibo is a pretty good one, so it’s possible for them to do well not only in China but also in other countries.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RHGPRYHF5VHVVWMKFLQB3TN2UU jim

      Am I mistaken about Find Japan looking to bring Japanese companies onto China’s weibo.com site for marketing to the Chinese?

      • http://twitter.com/DonSunny46664 Sunny Ye

        Hi Jim, thanks for being a loyal reader of TechRice and my Weibo posts, I really appreciate that, on the Sina Weibo virtual currency I actually have a post on it covering what it offers and also comparing it to other social virtual currencies in China, will be available soon.

  • Polyopticon

    I spoke to a Senior Sina staff member about the Japanese launch and she denied it. Quote “I don’t know where that rumour started, but it’s not true”. I hope it is true. I am very interested in seeing Weibo export its services globally.

  • Jonathan

    Sunny:

    I also enjoy your posts and find them very informative. How successful do you think Weibo will be across the Chinese diaspora? I think extending into Taiwan, HK and even Singapore would be more natural, but probably offer a less accurate picture of how Weibo will do globally than Japan. 

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