How Emoticons Are Transforming the Japanese Mobile Scene

line-emojiLINE is a smartphone app developed by NHN Japan that allows users to enjoy free voice calling and messaging (both nationally and internationally) and can support multiple operators regardless of the mobile carrier. LINE was launched on June 23, 2011 after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that struck Japan, disrupting phone and cell phone lines across the country. Born in chaos, NHN Japan discovered that data-based service would pass through snarled mobile networks easier than traditional voice calls. So they launched an app to provide a continuous messaging and free calling service. In fact, the name LINE was originated from people having to line up outside of public phones after the incidents.

LINE app has achieved the milestone of 100 million users worldwide as of January 18, 2013, only 19 months after it’s originally launched. LINE’s active number of users exceeded 37,000,000 domestically in December 2012. Considering that Japan’s total population is 126,650,000, nearly one out of every three people in Japan is using LINE.

Emoticons Snowball Success


The most popular LINE characters are (from left) Moon, Brown the Bear, Cony the Rabbit, and James. They each have distinctive personalities that are popular with LINE users.

Though nitially created to allow free VoIP calls between LINE users, it quickly snowballed into a social network platform; it now has Instagram-like photo sharing, a Facebook-like social dashboard, and interactive games.

One of LINE’s most unique and popular features is the wide selection of emoji – realistic and vivid emoticons – that users can share while chatting.  Emoji is widely popular in Japan; the culture has a history of using cartoonish illustrations to express their emotions. Over 1,400 types of LINE’s stickers are available in the Sticker Shop, some for free, and some at a cost.


Korean pop star PSY is a featured emoji on Japanese chat application LINE.

As part of the marketing strategy, LINE characters are everywhere in Japan now. Stuffed toys, books, stationery, capsule toy, anime on TV, in stores, on billboards – you can’t miss them. Even celebrities are getting in on the action. For $1.99, you can purchase the famous Korean rapper PSY’s LINE stickers depicting his popular hit, ‘Gangnam Style’ and the well-known horse-riding dance moves that have won fans all over the world.

For market expansion, NHN Japan even painted a local train in Taiwan and covered with LINE characters, inside the train, passengers can use their smartphones to scan QR codes and receive event specials from LINE.

Company Mascot Acts as Spokesperson


Akiko-chan was originally introduced as a campaign character for Lawson under the profile “a university sophomore student and a part-time worker for Lawson.”

To date, LINE is adding an average of three million new subscribers per week, with active users constituting of up to 86% of its total registered users. The steady and rapid growth of the LINE community has attracted partnerships with major brand names like Lawson, Nisshin Food and Coca-Cola. Lawson is a major chain of convenience stores in Japan. Like many Japanese companies, Lawson has created a cute corporate mascot to help to carry their marketing campaign. The Lawson Crew mascot, Akiko-chan,  is a second-year student at college who works part-time at Lawson. In July 2012, Lawson started to offer free Akiko-chan stickers to their 1.5 million LINE contacts. The Nikkei Digital had a study on social media corporate mascot awareness, and Akiko-chan ranked number one and is considered the most notable company mascot in Japan.


The emoji craze has transcended the mobile app scene and has become a fixture in Asian pop culture.

How do you think LINE will influence the US mobile market?

Zhen Jia, MBA Candidate 2013

Zhen Jia, MBA Candidate 2013

Zhen previously led a number of worldwide alliance initiatives to explore new revenue sources through strategic partnerships with global clients.
Zhen Jia, MBA Candidate 2013

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Zhen Jia, MBA Candidate 2013

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