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Imagine that you are at a conference in Tokyo. As is the custom in Japan, for each person you meet, you formally exchange business cards by bowing and making it clear to them that you have thoroughly read their card before gently tucking it away. This is an important gesture. Not just because someone told you it was the custom here, but because you have no idea who this person could be. He could be the former CEO of Toyota for all you know, so you figure you’ll play it safe and find out later when you look him up on LinkedIn.
You get back to your hotel with your stack of business cards and start searching names… but “no results.”
2 hours later you get 5 friend requests on Facebook from people you met that day. “Why are they adding me?” you think. “Don’t they know not to mix personal with professional life?”
What you are finding out firsthand is that Japanese do not use LinkedIn. They use Facebook. Both Facebook and Twitter have become wildly popular in Japan, but for whatever reason, LinkedIn hasn’t.
One reason could be the way most Japanese view LinkedIn. In a culture where many still seek very long or even lifetime employment with the same company, LinkedIn is seen as just another job site. God forbid their bosses were to see that they’ve completed their LinkedIn profile. It would be career suicide.
Another reason could be the way LinkedIn is fundamentally designed. Users are given a blank profile (a resume, if you will) in which users can talk about their career accomplishments. This is a problem, because Japanese tend not to boast about themselves so openly. On an American profile, for example, you might see something along the lines of “grew revenue from $5M to $20M in the first year while tripling profits.” It is very rare that you would see any Japanese talk about themselves that way.
That is not to say that they don’t boast. They do, but they do it indirectly. They “humblebrag” is how some might put it. And while LinkedIn requires you to talk about what you’ve done right off the bat, Facebook allows you to imply that you’ve accomplished this, that you know that person, or that you’re affiliated with that project. It is the ultimate “humblebragging” tool.
There is one more factor that plays a role. People tend to do business with someone they like over someone that can provide them with the better deal. In Japan, this is overwhelmingly the case. Business is often done based on close relationships, and building those relationships requires bonding and getting to know the other person. Sharing personal lives with one another is a way of doing that. Facebook gives them a window into each other’s lives.
Many, including myself, have tried to create the “LinkedIn of Japan,” but have failed. We all thought, “don’t Japanese see a need for a professional social network?” The answer is yes, but what we didn’t realize was that that social network is Facebook.