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.