4 cost-effective steps to present your startup to the Japanese market

Japan is a lucrative, but difficult, market to enter and excel in . One of the largest retail franchises, Walmart, has failed and experienced huge losses; the popular e-commerce site eBay could not compete with the japanese auction site Rakuten Auction; and no one in Japan even knows that Taco Bell or Wendy’s exists.

There are four primary challenges when entering the market in Japan: low English proficiency among the general population, inclination to prefer domestic brands, a shortage of Japanese marketing agencies that do business with foreign companies, the consequently high prices of the domestic Japanese marketing agencies and lack of Japanese market knowledge at non-Japanese marketing agencies.

Even with all these difficulties, Japan is still worth investing your time and effort.

In this article, I will introduce three actionable tips to help you penetrate the Japanese market.

Don’t be stingy with the translation of important texts.

You want your writing to be clear and error-free so that your website content, business documents, and publications can create a positive impression and earn your web pages a higher position within search engine results pages (SERPs).

Copywriting translation will increase your sales.

The salary of a copywriter can be more than 100,000 USD a year. It seems expensive for just writing a few  sentences,however, they can generate more much more revenue for their clients or employers than they are paid. I don’t have official  stats about the return on investment of copywriting, but I believe it’s not hard to imagine that “keep calm and carry on”, ” I want you for U.S. Army”, “RedBull gives you wiiings”, “Think different”, “A Diamond is Forever”, “I’m Lovin’ It” have really paid off for those employers. Copywriting is not limited to posters or TV commercials; you can use the same techniques to attract visitors to your website, buy your products/services online, send requests for quotations, subscribe to newsletters, or any other desirable actions for which you designed your website.

On the other hand, poorly written text can cause more harm than benefit. For example, inaccurate translation of legal documents can result in legal problems. Non-native translations also give visitors to your website the impression that your company is so small that you can’t afford decent translators or that you don’t care about your Japanese users. In that case, it’s probably better to leave texts untranslated.

There are surprisingly many translation agencies that hire non-native speakers or don’t even bother to hire them and just use Google Translators. I understand that some people may feel that 0.4 to 0.5 USD per word to  hire a freelancer translator is too expensive (and that’s just for translation, not including copywriting!). One way to solve this problem is to hire freelance translators, as they usually offer lower rates. For example, I offer web content localization for less than 0.12 USD per word and I can write creative copy for the most important parts of your website.

You can reach the right clients and earn a higher placement on search engine results pages.

“If you build it, he will come.” That line may have worked for Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams, but the same method won’t work in Internet marketing. There are more than one million domains (not websites) in Japan. For example, there are more than 519,000 pages about organic coffee. Now, please translate your business name into Japanese using Google Translate, and then search for it. The number of pages found is the number of your competitors in the SERP market.

Only 2.4 percent of searchers will open the tenth page on their search results. If you reach the first position, 33 percent of searchers will visit your web page (the other 67 percent will close their browser or search again with different keywords). It’s very important that you get as good a placement as possible on SERPs .

To secure a better placement in SERPs, you need much more than basic translation by native speakers. You need translators who understand search engine optimization techniques, specifically on-site SEO.

So, how do you find out who has mastered these SEO techniques? If freelancers don’t mention SEO in their proposals, then they probably don’t know the first thing about SEO. If they did, they would know that it’s an important process within web content translation and that it’s definitely worth mentioning in their proposals.

I’ve worked for several SEO agencies as a freelancer and have provided on-site SEO services after learning this important technique. This knowledge and experience allows me to optimize your website for search engines and bring more visitors and prospective customers to your website.

“Whether you’re looking to attract new website visitors, increase online sales, get the phones ringing, or keep customers coming back for more, Google AdWords can help. (From the Google AdWords official website)”

Using Google AdWords, you can advertise to all of Japan, or target a specific region. This way you can target the right people at the right time. You can find more information about AdWords on Google AdWords Google Partners Help page.

“I fully believe that half the money I spend on marketing is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.” John Wanamaker

Luckily online advertising is an exception! Online advertising is targeted and measurable. Google Adwords can target customers by language, location, device used, time of browsing, and many other categories.  You can also measure impression, clicks, sign ups, purchases and other actions

When you come across such an advertiser’s dream, your first reactions is “What a great tool! All my advertising problems are solved!”, then you realize “oh shit, my competitors are already using it, too.”

Google AdWords is fairly technical, and managing campaigns for the Japanese market requires  Japanese and Google Adwords skills. If your competitor isn’t too big, you have a chance to have a head start in search advertising.

How to maximize ROI  in a nutshell

To maximize your ROI (return on investment) of AdWords, you need to work with someone who understands the language of the target market. This is because you need to set keywords that link to your ads when customers search for those terms, visit relevant websites, and create text ads, image ads, rich media ads, or video ads (see “1.3 Where your ads can appear – Google Partners Help” for more information.)

Search Advertising and Display Advertising is very deep, but the basic cycle is always the same: test a set of various ads, control and improve. If you are small company, keep campaign structures small so that you can easily manage them.

It will cost some money until you start generating profit, because you need to test your ads to perfect them. Even after the first test, there will be an improvement . Then you just need to try changing the texts occasionally and monitor the results.

How to use Google Adwords for SEO

Google Adwords is a useful tool for optimizing website content to improve search engine rankings.

I am sure you already  know how to use Google Keyword Planner for onsite optimization. That’s like page one of onsite SEO, but that’s not the only method.

You can use high CVR (Conversion Rate) keywords and text on your web page to improve your ROI.

Don’t wait any longer! Reach out to clients, the media, and market influencers!

Advertisements are not the only way to increase your exposure. Social media platforms and press releases are also effective and inexpensive. There are some media outlets in Japan that will publish your press release for free and there are many influential bloggers that can write about your product, if they like it.

Link building is another reliable way to make the most out of social media. You can ask individual bloggers to put links to your website on the sidebars of their blogs so that you can attract visitors from there, as well as helping to earn a higher placement on search engine result pages.

Last but not least, you can even send direct mail to potential clients. Using the mail merge features in Outlook or Google Spreadsheet Yet Another Mail Merge Plugins, you can send personalized email messages to thousands of potential clients for no charge. If you prefer postal mail, Microsoft Word also offers a mail merge feature so that you can create personalized brochures and envelopes.

Get exposure in your home market first

“Best Seller” is one of most frequently used sales copy. It’s ironic that you need to be the best seller to use one of the most effective sales copy.

The Psychological effect of this copy writing is called the Bandwagon Effect: the desire to possess what everyone else has.

When developing marketing you can use the Bandwagon Effect and the Snob Effect: the desire to possess what nobody has. When sending PR letters to the media, you could say “our product is very popular among celebrities in Hollywood but nobody knows about us in Japan yet. If you write about it, you will be the first one.”.

Getting popular in other countries, and getting exposure in English media is almost necessary to develop in the Japanese market, because of low the English literacy level, and uncertainty avoidance.

Hire country managers

Entering and succeeding in a foreign market takes many skills and steps.

  • Linguistic for translation, SEO
  • Marketing
  • Understanding local market characteristics
  • SEO
  • Design
  • Knowledge of local laws
  • Support

Hiring specialist for each process will take a lot of money and time.  It is also difficult to manage a foreign team. Hiring agencies or resellers is usually a very expensive option that is  not always available for small and medium sized companies.

The most feasible way is to hire a generalist who has all of the above skills at at least a basic or intermediate level. For example:

  • Someone who knows what is good design but does not have skill of graphic or web design.
  • Someone who doesn’t have a legal a degree but  can ask a lawyer effective questions.
  • Someone  who understands copywriting and choosing SEO keywords but who cannot analyze data.

Basically assign them tasks that require linguistic and cultural understanding, and assign yourself tasks that require more hard skills. For example, I cannot design websites or code websites because I have only basic knowledge of PHP and Photoshop, but I have studied web design and have seen enough websites to tell when a website looks good or bad. So I could talk to your design team, and give them some advice, like what is written on Guide to Web Typography in Japanese.

Hiring a country manager with basic skills that are required for localized marketing is a much cheaper and less complicated solution. It will also give the country manager a sense of autonomy and responsibility, to be in charge of a whole country,  which will  motivate them.


Japan is known as one of the most challenging yet rewarding markets. Despite that, many startups have penetrated the Japanese market and are thriving. It might take a year or two, but with help from the right person or consultant, it is certainly possible to explore and make a profit in the far east.

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