Through the Magnifying Glass: How You Can Crack the Japanese App Market



Written by


It’s no secret that Japan’s mobile app and gaming industry is one of the strongest contenders in the global app market today. What’s less well known, however, is exactly why Japanese developers have cemented such a strong position within this market, which is largely due to the incredibly high quantities of in-app purchases that average consumers in Japan are willing to make.

In-app purchases within Japan’s mobile app and gaming industry dwarfs that of all other countries. It is reported that 46% of Japan's app users are prepared to spend money on mobile games, with the average user spending a whopping $371 in 2018. In America, this was just $77 per person in 2019.

With 702,000 registered developers, Japan is home to one of the most creative developer communities in the world. A study recently commissioned by Apple evaluated the App Store in Japan to be worth $37 billion in 2019 - $11 billion worth of digital goods and services, $24 billion through physical goods and services and $2 billion from in-app advertising.

Non-gaming apps rule supreme

While the statistics are certainly impressive for mobile gaming, potentially of more interest to developers should be the non-gaming category. The Business of Apps reports that the non-gaming app category is projected to increase by 14.3% each year, while the mobile gaming market is forecasted to grow just 3.8% annually.

Take, for example, the Piccoma (ピッコマ) and Line Manga apps which are the top-grossing non-gaming mobile apps. On Android, they are the 5th and 9th highest-grossing. On iOS, the figures are even more impressive, rocking in at 3rd and 5th respectively. This isn’t a brand new trend either; in July 2019 the top-grossing non-game app in the world was the app Line Manga, which recorded almost $28 million in revenue from user spending.

Interestingly, both these Manga apps come directly from the creators of instant messaging giants KakaoTalk and Line, both of which started as simple messaging apps that offered free one-to-one conversations, group chats, and video calls which could be used with internet or 3G connection. After release, these apps started tailoring to their audience and quickly offered a variety of features that changed the way companies interacted with customers and allowed information to be rapidly processed and spread.

Within 4 years, Line has managed to turn itself from a mere messaging and video service into a franchise with its own shops which sell every kind of merchandise imaginable. Around 80% of Japanese netizens chat on Line and, with more than 80 million monthly active users, it is the world's number one non-gaming app in terms of revenue.

What does the rise of Line tell us about the Japanese app market?

The reasons for Line’s massive success in Japan over rivals such as Whatsapp can be attributed to the unique way it is marketed and designed. By observing these differences we can also learn a lot about what it takes to succeed in the app market in Japan.

Line’s in-app purchasable stamps, which allow users to personalise their messages, are probably its most popular feature, appealing to all generations with great success. Many of the stamps tap into the ever-present obsession with ‘cuteness’ in Japan. This provides Line with a constant revenue stream which allows for even more ventures.

Line has a particular focus on group communication rather than individual chats. This seems to strike the right cultural chord with Japan and is a huge part of its success.

To many Westerners, the interface on Line feels clunky. While they may be justified in their criticisms, the nature of the interface is more purposeful than just plain bad design. Japanese consumers were using smartphones long before they became mainstream elsewhere, and these original phones were often navigated by the thumb press on a keypad. Line’s distinctly awkward interface is therefore both a nostalgic experience for Japanese users, but also a familiar and comfortable one.

Rounding off

The unique cultural quirks of Japan will inevitably play a crucial role in deciding whether an app’s growth in this hugely competitive market will be a success or not. Accommodating familiar animation techniques and specific art forms to your app will certainly help boost its popularity. Another stumbling block for marketers trying to penetrate the market is language. Japan has a relatively low level of English proficiency compared to other countries. In 2019 the English proficiency level for Japanese was ranked 53rd in an annual survey of 100 non-English speaking countries and regions by EF Education First, down from 49th place in the previous year’s survey. Accordingly, apps need to be developed to accommodate this trend by providing apps which contain the Japanese language.

Taking into consideration all these factors before you plunge into the Japanese app market will surely increase your likelihood of success. For more information on how you can make the most out of emerging app markets, take a look at our market intelligence tool or get in touch with a member of our team today.