The popular microblogging service launched a Japan-based mobile version Thursday, hoping to penetrate a country where other U.S. social networking sites including Facebook and MySpace have failed to capture much ground.
Japanese is Twitter's sole foreign language platform so far, and the company's efforts here indicate it's serious about making it big in Japan — and eventually all over the world.
Twitter teamed up with Tokyo-based Internet firm Digital Garage Inc. in early 2008. It launched a Japanese-language platform for cell phones and other mobile devices in the spring of 2008, and hired a Japan country manager earlier this year.
"It's an excellent opportunity for us to see where we can go in Asia in general because Japan represents a leading edge, with advanced mobile usage," said Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who traveled to Tokyo this week for the launch. "Mobile is in Twitter's DNA."
The company will roll out the site in Spanish, German, French and Italian over the next few months, Stone added.
The San Francisco-based company is also using Japan to experiment with ways to make money from features unavailable on its English language site, such as banner ads. It remains mum on how much revenue the ads have attracted so far.
Early adopters were largely male tech geeks, but the messaging service is finally gaining some traction in mainstream Japan. Between January and June, the number of users jumped almost fourfold to 783,000, according to Internet research firm NetRatings.
Japanese celebrities and politicians are starting to sign up. So are traditional media outlets like newspapers and radio stations as well as municipalities and companies eager to take advantage of Twitter's marketing potential.
Lawmaker Kenzo Fujisue first heard about Twitter from a friend in Silicon Valley and now tweets regularly throughout the day. He has more than 5,400 followers, and his 140-character messages — all in Japanese — range from serious policy issues to the more mundane, like what he ate for dinner.
"People don't really know what politicians do," he said. "Twitter helps me give people a glimpse of the lawmaking process."
Still, Twitter remains a mystery to the vast majority of Japanese Web users. Mixi, the country's top social networking site, has 17 million users and is aiming for 30 million within four years.
The key to expansion in Japan is to develop a locally friendly mobile platform, Digital Garage's Rocky Eda said back in June.
A survey the company conducted earlier this year showed that 95 percent of Japanese Twitter users have accessed the service via cell phones. Mobile-based writers account for some 40 percent of regular blogging in Japan, and about a quarter of Mixi users rely on their cell phones to update their pages.
While Twitter already operates a mobile site in English, many of its features are incompatible with Japanese language usage. Instead, many mobile users here had been relying on third-party platforms like "movatwitter."
The new Japanese mobile version was jointly developed by Twitter and Digital Garage, and is compatible with the country's major carriers and the quirks of the local market. Emoticons can be imbedded into messages, and users can directly update their profile without having to turn to their PC.
Yukari Matsuzawa, Twitter's Japan country manager, says that users — and their own ingenuity — will ultimately determine Twitter's fate in Japan.
"As Japanese people creatively start to use Twitter, it will help define what the tipping point will be," she said. "It will be a combination of excellent innovative users in Japan, as well as more celebrities and influential people."
Perhaps people like Daichi Ito, an online editor by day who noticed this spring that Friday nights on Twitter were pretty dull.
"People were tweeting how bored they were by themselves with no one to talk to," he said.
So Ito decided to liven things up with a virtual bar. He created a new hashtag — a Twitter convention grouping all tweets on a particular subject with a tagline preceded by the pound sign. His new hashtag — twinomi — combines "twitter" with the Japanese word for "drink."
Out of nowhere, dozens joined in, using the hashtag to tweet their beverage of the moment or send out random thoughts. Messages tend to be denser, since a lot more Japanese fits into 140 characters than English. The exercise helped connect strangers with strangers, all who wanted to feel like they weren't alone.
The hashtag was a hit. Even now, months later, Japanese Twitter users gather for a nightly drink online.
"Japanese people aren't good at talking to strangers," Ito said. "And twinomi probably caught on because it's like sitting at a bar, without having to worry about anyone around you. If you want to chat with someone, you can. If you don't, nobody will take offense."