Japan has been lately experiencing a podcast renaissance—17 years after the invention of the medium.

Why Now? Examining Japan’s Late Adoption of Audio Content

Clubhouse exploded in popularity around the world in February of 2021, and since then, audio content — both livestream and podcast — in Japan has been experiencing something of a renaissance. In this article, we’ll be examining whether Clubhouse really was the spark that inspired this late adoption and embracing of audio content in Japan.

Some form of podcasting, or “audioblogging,” has existed since the ’80s, but it never really found its place in the Japanese mainstream. However, audio content has been drawing a large audience overseas for years. So, why is it only taking off in Japan now? There are three main factors that have influenced this sudden but late embracing of audio content in Japan: device adoption, the amount of content, and external environmental factors.

The popularity of devices such as AirPods Pro and Amazon Echo

The proliferation of devices such as AirPods Pro and Amazon Echo is increasing the demand for audio content. According to a report by NPR, a U.S. public radio network, and Edison Research, 24 percent of Americans over the age of 18, or 60 million people, own a smart speaker.

Furthermore, the same survey found that people with smart speakers are more likely to listen to music and radio than those who use the voice function of their smartphones. In other words, the spread of smart speakers might lead to the spread of audio content.

On the other hand, according to a survey by NRI, the number of families who own smart speakers in Japan as of 2020 is 5.4 million, or 10.4 percent of the total, much lower than the US figure. However, it is expected to have a positive impact on the voice market as it is predicted to rise significantly in the future according to NRI.

(Austin Distel/Unsplash)

(Austin Distel/Unsplash)

Amount of Content

Even if the demand increases due to the above reasons, the number of users will not increase if the supply side doesn’t grow as well. Simply put, the amount of Japanese language audio content that existed was just not enough to allow for consumption growth.

But as the saying goes, if you build the tracks, the train will come. Podcasting began its ascent in the overseas markets around 2004, and Apple added podcasts to their iTunes Store in 2005. NPR launched their podcast series This American Life in October 2006, and it has remained at the top of the charts ever since. As one of the leaders in the podcast space in the US, Spotify announced at CES 2019 that they would be “very focused on building out a podcast universe” and in 2020, they signed an exclusive multi-year licensing deal with hit podcast The Joe Rogan Experience.

Spotify has also been acquiring podcast-related startups, including the $235M acquisition of Megaphone, a podcast hosting and advertising platform, in November 2020, as well as Gimlet, a podcast production company, and Anchor, an editing tool, in February 2019. As a result, the number of active podcasts around the world has grown from 500,000 in 2018 to 850,000 in 2020, with more than 48 million episodes as of April 2021.

On the other hand, due to the nature of podcasting, the language barrier looms large. A 2019 report by MAGNA Intelligence showing the “Percentage of Population That Listens to Podcasts at least Once a Month” by country showed that Japan trailed behind at only an eight percent adoption rate.

According to Statista’s ranking of the world’s most spoken languages, there seems to be a great correlation with number of speakers and the rate of audio content adoption. In other words, the more speakers a language has, the greater the supply and demand for audio content, and the easier it is for the network effect to work. Therefore, the Japanese audio market is emerging a little later than the English-speaking market.

Environmental Factors

Before the time of COVID-19, according to a 2019 Bloomberg City Labs study, an overwhelming majority — 76.4 percent—of Americans commute to work by car alone, which makes it easy to consume audio content while driving. Unlike Americans, the vast majority of Japanese workers commute by train to work, and etiquette dictates that commuters keep quiet on trains, which adds a greater hurdle to listening to audio content while on the road. However, a major impact of the pandemic globally, Japan being no exception, is that more and more people have begun to work from home.

(NPR/Edison Research “The Smart Audio Report”)

(NPR/Edison Research “The Smart Audio Report”)

2020 report by NPR and Edison Research tracked behavioral changes in Americans caused by COVID-19. According to the report, more than 90 percent of American adults are leaving the house only minimally during the time of COVID, and 26 percent are working remotely from home. As a result, the amount of time spent listening to audio content at home has increased by more than 20 percent, and the percentage of disposable time spent on podcasts and smart speakers also increased.

As remote work becomes increasingly common in Japan, remote workers are able to audio content during work hours, which they may or may not have been able to do in their previous workspace. In an interview with Forbes, founder of Voicy, a Japanese audio content platform, Kentaro Ogata also explained one more factor that contributed to Clubhouse’s meteoric rise in Japan. “I think the reason why Clubhouse spread so rapidly in Japan was because of the State of Emergency declaration, which made it difficult to meet people in person after 8 PM,” Ogata says, referring to the Government of Japan’s State of Emergency declaration relating to COVID-19 issued April 7, 2021. “It was perfect timing.”

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