(as of 2020)
Is anything about Japan “normal”? Of course not! What looks “eccentric” or “weird” to non-Japanese is just how it is in Japan.
There’s less questioning of political correctness or ulterior motives. And there’s a whole lot of bandwagoning. And Japanese consumers can hop off that bandwagon and on another in a heartbeat.
The top 20 Instagram account, by the number of followers, tells you all you need to know about online influencers in Japan. And unless you live in Japan or you’re something of a weeaboo, you’ll probably find some unfamiliar names (stats are from SocialInsight). I learned a lot in putting this post together.
I’ve also added my comments. Naturally, these are generalizations, based on my own experience and perspective, and individuals vary. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
#1 Naomi Watanabe (渡辺直美) (@watanabenaomi703)
The proudly overweight 32-year-old comedian, actress, and now fashion designer rules Japanese social media. Naomi made her mark by… impersonating Beyonce (sometimes, that’s all it takes). Visual Instagram is the perfect place for this diva. At 9 million+ followers, she’s nearly 3 million up on 2nd place.
Her posts show her in various places and poses, confidently exposing her robust 5-foot-2 frame. Of all the manicured and carefully crafted beauties in Japan, why does Naomi attract this massive following? Perhaps it’s just that – she’s authentically unapologetic, and people find her relatable, enviable, and entertaining. Interestingly, she’s also half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese. Now she’s trying to make it big (no pun) in the U.S.
Takeaway: Japanese look to celebrities and influencers for escapism; caricatures who will do what they don’t dare (and maybe don’t even want to).
#2 Tasty Japan (@tastyjapan)
Turn on Japanese TV any time of day and you’re almost sure to see celebrities (tarento) eating, or going on trips in pursuit of food, and then eating. Most often, everything is delicious, and the reactions of the people eating are a key part of the aesthetic. When all else loses meaning in Japan, there is food.
What’s interesting about Tasty Japan is it’s neither celebrity-driven nor brand-driven; the two main consumer motivations in Japan. Its motto translates to something like, “Looking makes you happy, making gives you enjoyment.” That’s it – a constant stream of gorgeous, colorful food pics and short videos, usually with accompanying recipes. Oddly, Tasty Japan’s YouTube channel isn’t even that popular, only getting views in the tens of thousands.
Takeaway: Japanese love to look at food, talk about food, make food. No celebrities required. Women are also largely unapologetic about cooking for others.
3. Rola (@rolaofficial)
Fashion model and ubiquitous face and “talent” Rola presents another case of a caricature-like personality with her pouting and girly voice. But what makes Rola’s appeal more than a matter of being a very pretty face is her Bangladeshi–Japanese (with a touch of Russian) ethic makeup and the fact she’s actually really smart.
Rola can flip a switch between deliberate giggly bimbo and sultry, commanding fashion model. Her bronzed skin and hard-to-place looks, paired with an air of confidence make this 29-year-old a constant presence on TV, print, billboards, and the Japanese Internet. Her Instagram is a carefully managed stream of ultra-high-quality photos and uber-brands. She’s not the type to share a recipe or show her behind-the-scenes face. Or if she is, she’s not allowed.
Takeaway: Being “just a pretty face” can still get you a big following in Japan, but when you’re a bit different and highly enviable, and you get heavy rotation in all media, you’ve got a winning package.
#4. Kiko Mizuhara (水原希子) (@i_am_kiko)
Kiko Mizuhara is another beauty of mixed ethnicity, with an American father and a Japanese mother. Her lithe figure is the polar opposite of Naomi Watanabe, but similar to both Naomi and Rora, Kiko is seen as an independent and strong woman. She’s backed it up more than the other two by something speaking quite openly about social issues. Her Instagram feed is a mix of global shots, off-shots, high fashion, and idealized aspects of a beautiful woman in a beautiful life.
Kiko’s appeal is both based on her life and her looks, which makes her attractive to women and men.
Takeaway: Japan has Instagram influencers and personalities in the classic celebrity mold, as well. In this regard, there’s not much different from IG feeds anywhere else in the world. Japan also idolized multi-ethnic people if they look great or have something novel to offer, without rocking the boat too much.
#5. Nissan (@nissan)
Yep Nissan, the automaker. If you’re in the US, you may wonder, why Nissan? I kind of wonder that myself, but I guess it benefits from the huge international following and the tie-in with Renault and Mitsubishi. So those 5 million followers certainly are a lot less impressive than Naomi Watanabe’s remarkable number. Nissan’s feed is full of cars, some history, a few celebs. It also is boosted by being a global account, so it’s a bit different in this list, but it’s Japanese.
Takeaway: People like cars. A lot of people like Japanese cars.
#6. Yukina Kinoshita (木下優樹菜) (@yuuukiiinaaa)
More than the others so far on this list, Yukina Kinoshita (who uses her maiden name) really made a name for herself because of social media. Yukina took the typical pretty woman “talent” route of TV commercials, gravure (softcore bikini-type) DVDs and photobooks, and airy TV variety show appearances.
That’s nothing against her – it’s just a track that agencies put attractive young Japanese women onto when their looks are the basis of their marketability. However, before Yukina’s inevitably fleeting star burned out, at 23 she married a well-known comedian. A couple of years later the couple had their first child. She’s now been through a couple of scandals and was recently divorced.
Yukina’s Instagram stream, despite her beauty and celeb connections, is quite “normal,” Pictures of her, food, kids, places and sayings, whatever she’s up to. It’s the life of a single mother, ex-talent, and mega-influencer making her way in the world. That, it seems, makes her both captivating and relatable.
Takeaways: Women are a mighty consumer force on Japanese social media, and often they follow other women in search of fashion tips, motivation, and inspiration. Authenticity can play well, too, if it’s appealing.
#7. Tomohisa Yamashita (山下智久) (@tomo.y9)
The first man to make an appearance in these rankings is a sharply featured 34-year-old who didn’t start his account until May 2019. Despite that, Tomohisa Yamashita’s been in the talent business since age 11. He was a recruit of the legendary boy band training agency Johnny & Associates (commonly Johnny’s). What sets him apart from the hundreds of other beautifully manicured Japanese men who’ve taken the Johnny’s track of music, TV, and tons of exposure? Well, I don’t know.
Tomohisa’s Instagram, as of this writing, has just 30 photos, almost all of which are selfies or beautifully manicured face shots of him looking dashing and self-assured in a carefully managed way.
Takeaways: Despite Japanese women’s vehement denial that they like overly made-up men and they find Johnny’s pretty boys to not be their “type,” the numbers speak otherwise. And by the way, guys want to be like them, too, which boosts their social followings big time. Hey, I admit it, he’s a nice-looking dude!
8. Honda (@honda)
Same as what I said about Nissan, but Honda’s not as big in Japan. I’m still not sure why Nissan’s higher than Honda. I love Honda and my ’86 Civic was a beast. Honda’s Japanese account, by the way, has just short of 100,000 followers.
Takeaways: Global brands benefit from global exposure, in English.
#9. Nozomi Sasaki (佐々木希) (@nozomisasakiofficial)
Nozomi Sasaki, now 32, has been in modeling since the age of 14. Since then, she’s switched from the busty gravure-style fantasy modeling of teenage (and much older boys) to the world of serious fashion modeling. Perhaps thanks to that, she’s brought along a massive following of male and female followers.
Nozomi’s account is the cookie-cutter idyllic presentation of a beautiful, stylish, and enviable Japanese woman. You’ll never catch her wearing the same thing twice, without a radiant smile, and not in the presence of health, happiness, and trendiness. Photos of yummy food, adorable animals, and joyful friends.
She lacks Naomi’s brash unconformity, Rola’s exotic edge, or Kiko’s international and adventurous persona. Nozomi is a Japanese beauty through and through, and that makes her very marketable to Japanese women. No doubt, she has plenty of male admirers as well. Women want to be her. Men want a partner just like her. Based on her Instagram, she never has a bad day.
Takeaways: Being beautiful in a classically desirable Japanese way, with glowing white skin and a smile to match, is still very much desirable. Also, even if you’ve done some slightly edgier modeling work in the past, no one really holds it against you in Japan. Keep on marketing yourself.
#10. ARASHI (嵐) (@arashi_5_official)
The first band on the list is in the classic Johnny’s boy band mode. And now that SMAP is defunct, ARASHI seems to be flying the banner for long-running boy bands, having been in existence since 1999. All five lads, now around 40, are immediately recognizable, as their faces grace all media forms, from print to movies, all over the country. They maintain a scandal-free image, will all five guys showing good humor, good chemistry, and the ability to sing and dance up a storm as comfortably as getting playfully roasted on a variety show.
With just 72 posts as of this writing, Instagram clearly isn’t something ARASHI need to maintain their mega-popularity. But the playful mix of photos is an essential part of the branding package.
Takeaways: The power of Johnny’s rules again. A big band like this has its pick of jobs and is unlikely to ever be an influencer for anyone but the biggest of brands. The individual members, however, may be a different story, especially if the band members ever go their separate ways.
#11–20. No slouches, and a few actual social influencers here
#11. Kento Yamazaki (山崎賢人) (@kentooyamazaki)
The 25-year-old TV and film actor has great looks and, accordingly, a great big following of adoring fans of both sexes. Despite this, he’s only posted a bit over 100 times. He probably just doesn’t have time for it.
#12. Yuko Araki (@新木優子) (@yuuuuukko_)
The 26-year-old supermodel and actress, similar to Nozomi Sasaki, is an ideal, enviable, and perpetually physically flawless woman. Coming up on 4,000 posts, Instagram’s clearly a focal part of her public image. Similar to Kiko, her photos look lovely, but are diverse, global, and quite human. This makes her a likable and accessible presence, not to mention the fact she’s gorgeous.
#13. Marie Kondo (@mariekondo)
At last, one you’ve probably heard of. The bubbly sprite of tidying up and sparking joy through organization makes her appearance at #13. In fact, Marie Kondo’s popularity in Japan, while considerable, never matched what she achieved abroad. This high following is largely the product of international followers. Interesting to me, as an editor and localizer, is that even with 3.5 million followers, she couldn’t fix up the Japanese punctuation and the English typos on her profile. She might make some effort to tidy up her English skills, too. Wisely, she seems to have someone else writing the copy for her posts. And being so visually oriented, Instagram is vital for her brand.
#14. Kasumi Arimura (有村架純) (@kasumi_arimura.official)
This 27-year-old actress is little-known outside Asia, but in Japan, she’s a very familiar face and presence. Unlike (arguably) less-talented “talents,” Kasumi is an actress through and through, appearing only on TV and in movies, along with plenty of ads. She’s honed her craft for the Japanese audience, with her angelic features and soft-spoken demeanor. Japan still has plenty of love for the classic Japanese beauties. Kasumi seems she would have been just as popular in the Showa era half a century ago. She’s barely touched her Instagram account, as it only has about 50 posts in the year it’s been up. It’s more for the sake of having one, evidently.
#15. Erika Toda (戸田恵梨香) (@toda_erika.official)
Another actress with a seldom-used Instagram profile but a massive following. With around 50 posts showing various shots on set and hanging around, Erika seems to have little time for social media. She’s been on a ton of TV shows, some movies, and she’s won many awards. Outside Japan, few would know who she is.
#16. Kyoko Fukada (深田恭子) (@kyokofukada_official)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a red-blooded Japanese male between the ages of 25 and 50 who doesn’t know Kyoko Fukada. The curvy actress, singer, model has been fueling men’s dreams in countless TV and movie appearances, books and DVDs, as well as some J-pop, since the late 1990s. It’s hard to imagine she’s still not even 40. With just over 100 posts, Instagram seems to be an aside for her, but it doesn’t keep away a couple of million admiring followers.
#17. Mirei Kiritani (桐谷美玲) (@mirei_kiritani_)
A beautiful actress and model, age 30. Sensing a trend here? Like many other big stars on Japanese Instagram, Mirei Kiritani is a household face and name in Japan, little-known elsewhere. Mirei has also been a TV newscaster, she’s married, and she’s a frequent lifestyle poster on Instagram. Fashion, food, glamour photos, brands, the usual. She’s also clearly sponsored on IG and is an active influencer.
#18. Takayuki Yamada (山田孝之) (@takayukiyamadaphoto)
Mega-star actor Takayuki Yamada has appeared exclusively in Japanese TV and movie productions for two decades. That longevity, and the fact that Japanese actors sometimes get a bit more diversity and character in their roles than actresses do, may give him a bit of name recognition outside Japan. Recently, The Naked Director has become a Netflix hit and that’s extended the handsome 36-year-old’s popularity. His Instagram feed is a refreshingly quirky and “normal” mix showing his life and interests.
#19. Nicole Fujita (藤田ニコル) (@2525nicole2)
At 21, half-New Zealander, half-Japanese model Nicole Fujita is the youngest member of this list. And as she nears 3,000 posts on IG, you can tell the millennial gets this Instagram thing. Accordingly, social media is a much bigger part of her life and image the older and more-established celebs. Nicole also has a huge following, in the hundreds of thousands, on her YouTube channel. Her kawaii appeal with a combination of foreign and Japanese features gets the attention of girls who want to look and dress like her and boys who… will be boys. She also seems to be a savvy young woman, having already launched her own fashion brand.
#20. Pokemon (@pokemon)
You know, Pokemon. Nuff said, eh.
Bonus: Me (@scizeadam)
Since I have a couple of million fewer followers than the leaders, I’d love it if you follow me and check out my photos.
Need more insight on what’s popular in Japan? Looking to localize to or from Japan? Get in touch!