Hello, my name is Hidenori Shimodaira and I am the president of Picaro, Inc.
If you are reading this blog, I assume that you are thinking of using Amazon Japan to expand your business to Japan. On the other hand, you may not have seen much information available in English (such as English blogs written by native Japanese) on how to expand your business to Amazon Japan.
In this article, I, who was born and raised in Japan and worked for Amazon Japan for more than 10 years, will share some tips on how to expand into Japan, particularly Amazon Japan.
1. Scale of Amazon Japan
First, the scale of Amazon's business in Japan in dollar terms is the fourth largest in the company and accounts for 4.9% of its total sales, with sales of $20.461 billion in 2020, a 27.9% increase from the previous quarter, and $23.071 billion in 2021, up 12.8% from the previous quarter.
・U.S.A. → $314.006 billion (quarter-over-quarter +19.2%)
・Germany → $37.326 billion (QoQ +26.3%)
・United Kingdom → $31.914 billion (QoQ +20.5%)
・Japan → $23.071 billion (QoQ +12.8%)
・Others → $63.505 billion (QoQ +38.0%)
Amazon Japan's revenue includes direct sales business as well as commission income from third-party sales (merchant sales), subscription services, and Amazon Web Service (AWS).
Although neither Amazon US nor Amazon Japan publish their total distribution figures, as of 2018, 58% of Amazon's total global distribution was through Amazon Marketplace sellers. Digital Commerce 360, a U.S. e-commerce magazine, estimates that 60% of total distribution was through the marketplace.
Based on the estimate that third-party sales account for about 60% of the total distribution value, and that commission income averages about 10% of third-party sales, we estimate that Amazon.co.jp's total distribution value has reached about 5 trillion yen.
2. Amazon vs. Rakuten
In addition to Amazon, there are two other major e-commerce malls in the Japanese e-commerce market: Rakuten and Yahoo.
Comparing them in terms of sales (distribution value), Rakuten Market has 3.9 trillion yen, followed by Yahoo Japan with 890.1 billion.
In this article, we will focus on Rakuten (URL: https://www.rakuten.co.jp/). Rakuten is a pioneer in e-commerce sales in Japan. The distinctive feature of Rakuten is that each service within the group, such as Rakuten Card, Rakuten Travel, and Rakuten Mobile, is linked to each other.
Rakuten has succeeded in retaining customers comprehensively by offering services in a wide variety of areas and by providing them with a system that allows customers to save money when using a combination of these services.
In particular, the key is the Rakuten Points that can be given for each service. Rakuten Points can be given back at a high rate when shopping at Rakuten Ichiba (Rakuten's marketplace), and the points can be redeemed for product purchases.
Another recent hot topic in Rakuten Ichiba was the introduction of a free shipping service for purchases of 3,980 yen or more. This was a measure to improve usability and attract more customers, but it caused quite a controversy, with some stores opposing the service.
Note that the sales figure mentioned above is not only for Rakuten Ichiba alone, but also includes the total distribution value of its affiliated service, the flea market application "Rakuma". Therefore, it is said that Amazon Japan clearly outperforms Rakuten Japan when compared purely with sales at the mall.
3. Differences Between English and Japanese
Now that you are getting familiar with Amazon and Rakuten and have a general grasp of Japanese e-commerce malls, let's dig a little deeper and focus on the potential obstacles to using Amazon or Rakuten to expand into Japan.
As you may have already noticed, language is the first obstacle.
The Japanese language is quite unique in that it doesn't use the alphabet while many other languages do, and it differs significantly in the perception of characters and grammar.
3-1. Three Different Types of Characters
The first thing you need to know is that there are three types of characters in Japanese: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
As for most languages in the U.S. and Europe, I think you can start learning them if you know the alphabet. Even for Russian and Bulgarian, although different from the Roman alphabet, if you learn the 30-40 Cyrillic letters, you will be able to read them aloud somehow, even if you do not understand the meaning. For Korean as well, if you learn Hangul, you will be able to handle most things.
Japanese, however, has a ruthless characteristic: if you do not know hiragana, katakana, and kanji, you cannot even read aloud.
(There is a historical background that influences the reason for the existence of three types of characters in the Japanese language, but I will refrain from explaining the details in this blog.)
Now, as you can see from the above, in Japanese, it is necessary to create sentences using all three types of characters, and this is also true for creating Amazon product titles and product detail pages. And when it comes to putting it into writing in a perfect form, even native Japanese speakers cannot do it easily.
3-2. Order of the Japanese Language: "Subject-Modifier-Predicate"
Compared to English, which is currently the most studied language in the world, Japanese differs drastically in grammar and word order, which is why Japanese is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers, and vice versa.
The following images highlight the differences between Japanese and English grammar, showing that the word order is almost the exact opposite.
For these two reasons, Japanese is considered to be the most difficult language in the world, so it is best to hire a native team for creating catalogs, ongoing listing optimization, and SEO. If you are looking for a partner for listing optimization and SEO, please contact us ( https://www.picaro-consulting.com/#Contact ).
4-1. Product Labeling
Japanese law requires labels on many categories of products. Normally, the labeling of imported goods is required at the point when the goods are sold, not at the customs clearance stage. Therefore, Japanese importers generally do labeling after the imported goods have cleared customs.
However, this requires a Japan-based local agent. Therefore, it is better to label the goods in-house before exporting, in order to cut down on costs.
4-2. Importer Of Record
An Importer Of Record (IOR) is necessary when exporting goods to Japan.
Government Approval Required
Utensils, food, and toys for children under 6 years old require an import application and approval for each shipment.
Personal care and cosmetics require import application and approval for each product.
(Once approved, imports can only be made under the Japanese IOR.)
Government approval is not required. Foreign online sellers in Japan must comply with import documentation regulations, including the Foreign Online Seller Report.
The report verifies the importer's company name, Japanese online account holder, and sales price.
An IOR (Importer of Record) is required for all imported goods.
In addition to the above, there are other product categories that require special applications, such as food, utensils, products for babies and children under 6 years old, quasi-drugs, electronic devices, etc. Therefore, before exporting goods to Japan, make sure to get good advice from an expert or find an agency that can handle the application on your behalf. If you need help finding an agency, please contact us. We will be happy to introduce you to our partner companies. ( https://www.picaro-consulting.com/#Contact )
4-3. Return of Goods
Some e-commerce platforms require sellers to set up a return address for returned merchandise, so you will need to find an agency that offers to accept returns in Japan.
5. Bank Account
In Japan, only corporations with a domestic address are allowed to open bank accounts. This is where payment services such as Payoneer come in handy, as they allow foreign companies to receive sales from Amazon Japan and remit them to their home countries.
6. Trademark Registration
As with Amazon.com and Walmart.com, obtaining a Japanese trademark and registering it with Amazon and Rakuten in Japan will allow you to protect your brand, including dealing with fake or non-genuine products. While you can obtain a trademark in the U.S. and register it with Amazon Japan's brand registry, we recommend that you obtain a Japanese trademark and register it with Amazon Japan apart from the U.S. counterpart.
Brand registration will give you the advantage of not only running sponsored brand ads and creating A+, but also allow you to upload sub-images specific to Japan, which will enable you to post infographics in Japanese.
In Japan, it generally takes 6 to 9 months from the time of application to obtain trademark rights. Of course, not all applications will be approved, but as soon as you get approval, you can proceed to register your brand with Amazon. If you need assistance with trademark registration, please contact us at https://www.picaro-consulting.com/#Contact.
7. Keep the Product Title Simple
One of the most frequent and biggest mistakes when registering Amazon.com products with Amazon Japan is to translate the title or bullet points into Japanese without taking into account the character limit.
For example, some categories on Amazon Japan have a limit of 40 characters for product titles. This means a very small number of keywords when compared to Amazon.com. As for bullet points, each bullet point is limited to 200 characters, and the total should not exceed 1,000 characters.
The exact reason for this has not been made public, but we believe it is probably influenced by the number of bytes each word in Japanese has and the cultural background.
For example, the letter "a" in the alphabet is 1 byte, while "あ" ("a" in Japanese) is 2 bytes, and Kanji typically uses 3 bytes per word. In other words, the number of bytes used for a word in Japanese is much larger than in the alphabet, and we assume that Amazon has placed a limit on the number of bytes used.
Also, as mentioned in section 1, there are three types of characters in the Japanese language, and a simple explanation for this would be that they are easy for Japanese people to read. That is, Japanese people culturally prefer text that is easy to read.
For example, on Amazon.com, we occasionally see ASINs with too many keywords in the product title, but such catalogs are extremely frowned upon on Amazon Japan (*There is a different tendency on Rakuten, though).
There are pros and cons to this, and it is hard to say which is 100% correct. It is true that Amazon would be more likely to index your product if you put as many keywords as possible in the product title, and your organic ranking would also increase.
However, this is based solely on Amazon's algorithm, and from the customer's perspective, data shows that if a product title is judged to be difficult to read, it will be difficult to get a click. Also, from my experience when I was working for Amazon Japan, I would say that product titles should be as simple as possible, and in fact, it is said that there was an internal Amazon guide that supports this idea.
When it comes to what kind of design people prefer, there is a vast difference between Japan and Western countries. Also, Amazon and Rakuten actually have very different creative approaches. We frequently receive requests to use existing images and add catchphrases and sub-information in Japanese, but this can lead to a major loss.
Unfortunately, Japan has yet to have enough ethnic diversity, and I think it is not too much to say that the country is formed by a single ethnic group, the Japanese. Consequently, there are still cases where people feel a bit uncomfortable when they see a non-Japanese model in the sub image of a product they are about to purchase (we do not mean to be discriminatory at all).
Also, the way to express information in infographics is different from that in the West, too. For example, it is often overlooked in translations from Amazon.com that in Japan, kg is used for weight, cm for length, and pounds and feet are not used.
And as for Amazon Japan, there is a tendency for Japanese people to prefer simpler text in sub images as well as product titles. However, Rakuten has a bit different stream depending on cases, so it is very important to grasp the characteristics of each e-commerce mall and create catalogs for them in terms of EC in Japan.
Our company has professionals in designing sub images for Amazon and A+ images, and we have received high praise from top Japanese brands. If you need help with design, please contact us.
( https://www.picaro-consulting.com/#Contact )
Amazon Japan, like Amazon worldwide, has two major advertising menus: sponsored ads and DSP. However, unlike in many other countries, sponsored ads are overwhelmingly used in Japan, and the number of brands using DSP is quite small, although DSP is also effective to a certain extent.
We imagine this is because Amazon's DSP API has not yet been fully opened to the Japanese market, and thus there is not a sufficient variety of external tools available to support DSP advertising.
And even for sponsored ads, there are not many reports of very positive results with sponsored display ads as of this moment. My impression is that many sellers are currently in the stage of starting to develop sponsored brand videos (SBV) as well as additional sponsored product ads, while mainly focusing on sponsored product ads.
Another tricky thing about sponsored product ads is again the three different characters. For example, the word "horse" exists in three different ways in Japanese: "うま," "ウマ," and "馬." This means that when users search for horse-related products, they will use one of these three characters. Therefore, while in English, all you need to do is to set up an exact match/phrase match/broad match for "horse," in Japanese, to put it extremely simply, you need to do it three times as much.
Furthermore, for example, when Japanese are asked to write "horse" by hand, they usually write "馬" in kanji. And it is typical for most Japanese to type in hiragana first and then convert it into kanji or katakana. From this, one might imagine that a Japanese person searching for "horse" would type "うま" in hiragana and then convert it into kanji, "馬". However, it is not that simple. Quite often, people click on "search" when they type "うま" without converting it.
In other words, Japanese do not always use a consistent writing style when searching, and often write in a different way than usual.
As for this, once more data is organized, we should be able to judge correctly to some extent, but until then, we think we have no choice but to rely on the sensory approach of the native Japanese speaker. Even if the data is ready, if we cannot instantly determine the difference among the three different characters, you will be faced with an extremely daunting and time-consuming task.
It is possible to manage ads at a minimum by utilizing AI tools such as PACVUE and Perpetua, but in order to conduct detailed analyses and understand them 100% correctly, it would be necessary to have native Japanese speakers on the team, or to use tools that specifically support sales growth in the Japanese market, such as picaro.ai ( https://picaro.ai ), which is currently under development by our company.
10. Platforms Other than Amazon
As explained at the beginning of this article, there are three major e-commerce malls in Japan: Amazon, Rakuten, and Yahoo.
As for Amazon, once you have your IOR, return policy, and legal arrangements in place, you can stock your FBA warehouse and sell in Japan just like any other marketplace. Open an Amazon Japan account from your existing Seller Central account, register your products, and prepare to ship your inventory. Of course, we would be happy to assist you if you have any requests such as "I don't understand Japanese," or "I would like to request your company to manage my account in Japan."
On the other hand, even if a US manufacturer wants to sell its products on Rakuten, it cannot directly sell its products like it can on Amazon, and is limited to one of the following three models:
(1) Establish a Japanese subsidiary to list their products on Rakuten.
(2) Have a Japanese agency import the product and sell it.
(3) Do not keep inventory in Japan, but ship from the U.S. when orders are placed.
Rakuten has been promoting the listing of items on Rakuten Japan from overseas since May 2022. Currently, Rakuten is promoting the opening of stores in the model of (3) first, and in the future, as a fourth option, is considering a scheme where only inventory is placed in Rakuten's warehouse, similar to Amazon.
Picaro, Inc. can introduce you to the department in charge of Rakuten, and you can contact us here. ( https://www.picaro-consulting.com/#Contact )