Japan’s Email Problem Has Lessons for us All
You probably don’t think about email very much. It’s very useful, occasionally irritating and always there. But what if it wasn’t popular anymore?
I’m not saying that email is dead, because it clearly isn’t. But in Adobe’s recent survey of email habits we found that the Japanese spend less time checking email than any other country surveyed, and by some margin. They’re also the least likely to find the contents of email useful.
For a country known for its ethic of hard work and long hours, this seemed like an anomaly. What has happened in Japan to make email less relevant to daily life? And how does this fit with the popular image of the overtime-fatigued Japanese salaryman, chained to his desk and his computer?
For some answers I turned to my colleague Takayoshi Sotani, Adobe Japan’s head of digital marketing. And what he said illuminated not only a problem with how email is used and perceived in Japan, but a much wider change to work/life culture that could have ramifications for all of us.
“I reckon the survey is correct,” he says. Because email in Japan has a problem, becoming something to be endured and ignored. Overuse and a lack of regard to the customer experience has, for the Japanese, knocked the value out of email.
“For instance, Amazon Japan has about 50 million users,” says Taka, “but it sends them two to three emails a day. This level of spamming has put Japanese people off email.” Design, especially how it affects legibility, is another issue.
“In Europe and North America emails look good,” says Taka. “But in Japan emails are crammed with text and are difficult to read. No-one has time to make sense of them.”
But it’s. Millennials and what’s known as the Satori generation (roughly equivalent to Gen‑Z) have a very different outlook on life to the generation above. “I’m Gen‑X,” says Taka. “One of my objectives was to have a good career, get a good job with a good future.” Today the Satori are more interested in living in the moment than a career, and “millennials consider work as a way of earning money to live,” says Taka.
“Older people wanted to work in a job for life, but the young don’t – they move around more. And the criteria by which they choose their first job has changed. When I started work, in 1999, working for an enterprise company was the most popular. Now it’s a company’s philosophy or a vision that people look for, not the size or power.”
They’re much less likely to allow work to dominate their lives in the same way previous generations have done. The increasing gap between what the younger generation want and what’s being offered by traditional employers magnifies this difference.
Because of this, for the young, work email is not something to be checked outside of work, and email in general is not particularly relevant. Years of spam coupled with an absence of personalisation and relevancy have relegated it to the bottom of the pile. They prefer social platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, and while some Japanese companies use them to great effect, Taka says many don’t.
“Japanese firms aren’t doing a great job with social. The elders, who are respected and have great power, often don’t know much about these platforms. But they’re leading the teams running social campaigns.”
It’s a unique set of circumstances – the 2008 economic crash, the resulting disillusionment of the young and a majority elderly population – that have created this situation. But the results are not unique to Japan. A new generation wanting a different way of living and working, dissatisfaction with the status quo: all familiar socio-economic themes.
In Europe and North America, email is still a valuable and valued marketing tool, and one we rely on. But how ready would we be if Millennial and Gen‑Z customers stopped opening emails, just like they have in Japan?
Find out more about how to ensure emails are engaging for all generations here.