Marketing Images In Japan

Posted on 5/21/2003 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



May 21, 2003

To the rest of the world Japan has always been a tantalizing market for stock
photography. The Japanese have produced much of the best equipment used to capture images. They

have a very visually oriented society. And according to Jonathan Klein Japan is the second
largest market for stock photography in the world after the United States.

Despite it's importance in the world of images, outsiders - non-Japanese image creators -
have only been able to penetrate this market in a very marginal way. For decades Westerners
have made their images available in Japan -- and some sell -- but only to a minor degree when
compared to those produced by Japanese photographers.

Japanese agents estimate that the total stock photography market in Japan generates
something in the range of $200 million in gross sales annually. 80% of that is for
images created by Japanese photographers. This leaves a market of about $40 million for
photographs from the rest of the world. Japan is divided into Urban and Local markets.
The urban markets are in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Urban markets use both Japanese and
foreign created materials, but the local markets prefer mostly Japanese created materials.

There is no Japanese bias against using images created by photographers of other
nationalities. It's just that Japanese picture buyers have a very different sense -- when
compared to buyers in the rest of the world -- of what makes a good image, and how images
should be used in marketing products and services to Japanese customers. Pictures
that disturb the emotions, that surprise or stimulate are preferred in Japan. This visual
sense is almost impossible for a Westerner to understand or acquire because it comes
from a complete immersion in the Japanese culture from birth.

Every country and culture has differences in what they prefer both visually and in other
ways, but the differences between the Japanese and the rest of the world, when it comes to
photographs, are much more dramatic than the differences between various Western cultures.
American photographers have discovered that a lot of what they produce
sells well in Europe, and vice versa, because the cultural differences are less extreme.
However, when Americans or Europeans attempt to sell in the Japanese market they find that
many of their images that have done well in their own country have no appeal for the Japanese.

It also works the other way. Much of what the Japanese produce is unlikely to sell well
in U.S. or European markets. Junichi Nakamura of Orion Press points out that
when FPG was selecting images from three of Orion's Color Box catalogs to create its
Photo Haiku catalog for distribution in the U.S. market the editors rejected an image that had
sold more than 300 times in Japan. They felt it was unlikely to sell in the U.S.
market. This is just one example that demonstrates that local interests aren't always
global interests.

If the subject is travel and the picture needed is of the Effel Tower or Monument Valley,
then it probably makes little difference whether that image is created by a Japanese or a
Westerner, but if the subject deals with business, lifestyle, people, food, art,
transportation, communication, etc. there are huge differences in how these subjects
must be approached depending on whether the resulting images are meant for Westerners
or Japanese buyers.

Why does this matter? It is important for photographers and agents to be aware of these
differences as they attempt to expand into new markets. It is important to have
realistic expectations.

Editing and Marketing Strategies

Japan is probably a prime example of a country where a database of locally created images
is likely to be much more useful to the buyers than an international database. Currently,
Getty Images is engaged in a major effort to make their worldwide database searchable in
Japanese and to add Japanese created content to their site. (See the end of Story
552 .

Getty's current revenues in Japan are about $5 million annually and much of that comes
from sales made by sub-agents. Since the sub-agents probably keep about
40% of the gross revenue collected this $5 million to Getty could represent as much as
$8.3 million in gross sales by the local agents. However, Japanese agents estimate that
the total revenue is probably closer to $6.8 million. This would mean that currently
Getty has about 17% of the $40 million Japanese market that their images currently address.

Of course Getty hopes that by adding Japanese content to its site it will be able to
capture some of the additional $160 million spent annually for Japanese content. Several
Japanese agents feel Getty will find it difficult to get enough Japanese content to
seriously compete in that segment of the market, although none dispute that if Getty has
the content buyers will use their site.

Part of the problem facing Getty is how to address this very distinctive local market with
an offering that is also designed to appeal to global buyers. Getty has always tried
to limit the images on their site to those they felt had a worldwide appeal.
There are two reasons for this. One is that due to the cost of scanning, keywording and
preparing the images for online search and delivery they need to generate a volume of sales
from any image they place online. In addition, they have always been concerned about
buyers being overwhelmed when they get too many images as a result of any given search.
It is believed that buyers desert a site when searches generate too many hits that are
irrelevant to the buyer's idea of what is appropriate for their needs.

The difficulty Getty will face -- or for that matter any other western database attempting to
market in Japan -- will be that as they add images that are relevant to the Japanese buyers
the database is likely to become less relevant to Western buyers. If they add enough to
satisfy the needs of the Japanese culture, buyers from other cultures may begin to feel
they are seeing too many inappropriate images. On the other hand, if Getty limits the amount
of Japanese material the offer is likely to be so sparse that it very quickly drives customers
back to the Japanese agencies that have the depth of Japanese content those buyers are looking for.

Opportunity For Japanese Portal

It would seem that Getty's entry into the Japanese market may set the stage for a
Japanese portal similar to PictureQuest or Alamy but one that brings together the work of
Japanese agencies and concentrates exclusively on handling images that will be of interest
to Japanese buyers rather than attempting to reach a global market. Indications are that
while this idea has been discussed in Japan, as yet there is no serious move in this direction.

Instead, most Japanese agencies are moving to set up their own separate sites.
Experience in the West has shown that buyers tend to make more use of sites with a broad
cross section of imagery than sites with a limited "general" offering. Smaller sites can
be effective when they are perceived to be catering to a small niche, specialist segment
of the market, but even then these niche agencies can usually generate additional revenue
by making the same images available on a portal that reaches out to the broader market.

The existence of the Getty site with searching available in Japanese will almost
certainly drive more Japanese buyers toward online to look for images. Once buyers
have tried the online experience they are likely to want to get all their images online. A
portal with a strong offering of Japanese images could be a very effective competitor to

Several Japanese agents say their customers still want transparencies and want to
continue to operate in the analog world. These agents believe this interest in film will
continue for some time. It seems to me that the marketing Getty will do in the near
future is likely to change that attitude. That has certainly been the case in the rest of
the world. Once customers discover the advantages of digital search and delivery they
switch rapidly - provided the content they need is available digitally. The main
advantage for traditional Japanese agents continuing to operate in the analog world will
be that Getty won't have the depth of content.

Copyright © 2003 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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