How millions turned for the first time to Facebook in Japan after Earthquake

Have you ever had a friend request that you just let sit in your inbox for a while as you mulled over whether or not to ‘accept’? Maybe it was someone you weren’t quite sure met your ‘friend requirement’. Or maybe it was someone you had heard of, but didn’t really know very well.

Japan has felt the same way about Facebook since it launched here in 2008. Awareness is high of course, but Japanese weren’t ready to accept Facebook into their social media milieu – which consists of powerhouses such as Mixi, Twitter and gaming site Gree, each in the neighbourhood of 20 million users.

At the end of 2010, Facebook had yet to break the two million-user mark. Facebook was like that little red circle one that lingered, waiting to be ‘ignored’ or ‘accepted’.

Then, disaster struck.

According to Social Bakers, Facebook Japan had creeped up to between 2.3 to 2.4 million users when the Great Tohoku Disaster – a 9.0 earthquake – struck the island nation. As of the first week of June there are now more than 3.6 million users in Japan, and growing quickly. According to CheckFacebook.com Japan is one of the fastest growing Facebook countries and is adding 211,000 users a week and should at this rate pass five million users by the end of the month.

Why the sudden turnaround?

When the earthquake struck, Tokyo let us down. The disaster exposed the megalopolis’ few yet distinct weaknesses. Trains stopped, leaving millions stranded. Power outages left many in the dark. But perhaps the most frustrating effect was the complete failure of mobile phones to provide useful means of contact (pay phones are all but gone, too). In the 72 hours following the quake, cell phone networks were essentially useless in the Tohoku (disaster area) and Kanto (Tokyo area) regions.

For many of us Tokyoites, Facebook was the only consistent way to contact friends and family. Ironically, smart phones still transmitted data during the phone ‘outage’ making Facebook, and other social media, critical in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

In other words, in the wake of the disaster, Facebook became essential.

As Facebook became our only point of contact, many of us in Japan spent more time than usual logged in, checking in on each other, communicating with each other, and generally spending quality time online. Even after phone service was up, Facebook helped us keep each other informed, educated, comforted and even amused as the scale of the disaster came into focus and radiation panic took hold. It was also a vital lifeline to the outside world – allowing easy sharing and updating of information for friends and families abroad.

This essentiality – a usefulness no one ever imagined – is the key driver or cause of the current growth of Facebook in Japan. As word, and profiles, spread, more and more Japanese are recognising the need to keep in touch with each other via more open and meaningful connections.

Meaningful connections? Facebook?

While much has been made of social media and mobile connectivity in Japan, users of popular sites such as Mixi and Twitter tend to interact with each other behind the veil of avatars and call signs. Many commentators in Japan believed that Facebook would fail here precisely because it ‘requires’ users to show their real names and show their face.

The earthquake was, then, a stark reminder of the need for real connection. Online, of course.

It was this strongly felt need to connect with loved ones added to the realities of limited communication following the disaster that finally created the perfect storm of conditions leading to overdue growth of Facebook in Japan. And as the Japanese social media world gets comfortable using real names and faces (and I believe it will), we can expect this trend to continue on, thankfully, without the need for any more help from Mother Nature.

Gary Klugman is strategic planning director for TBWA Hakuhodo Japan.