App Annie takes an-depth look at the mobile app economy in Japan

App store analytics company App Annie today took an in-depth look at Japan, analyzing the Japanese mobile industry, the state of the platforms in the country and the companies, app genres and apps dominating the Japanese market.

In October 2012, Japan surpassed the U.S. in revenue on Google Play, becoming the most lucrative country for the Android platform, with 29 percent of the app store’s total global revenue.

Before Japan surpassed the U.S. as the leader in terms of revenue on Google Play, the country was actually late to the smartphone party, with smartphones taking only a 23 percent share of the handset market share at the end of 2011.

In Japan, the mobile market is dominated by three wireless carriers — NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank. Traditionally, these companies have been the gatekeepers of content, but since the debut of the iOS and Android app store ecosystems, the top three wireless carriers are seeing its control over content change hands to the iOS and Android mobile platforms. This is why feature phones held on for so long in the country while smartphones blossomed in other regions, because the wireless carriers could restrict access to content and have influence over device manufacturers.

The No. 1 wireless carrier, NTT DoCoMo, doesn’t carry Apple products because it can’t control the sale of content from the Apple iTunes Store. Instead, NTT DoCoMo put its chips on Android and also built its own carrier stores to continue to maintain control on content that flows through its wireless network. For example, “dmenu” is a portal for accessing internet-based content, and “dmarket” is a market offering videos, music, books and apps.

On the other hand, the No. 2 and 3 wireless carriers, KDDI and Softbank, offer the iPhone, enabling Japanese consumers to buy content through the Apple iTunes Store instead of through the wireless carrier. The move to carry Apple products in turn has boosted the subscriber rate for both KDDI and Softbank, while NTT DoCoMo is now losing more subscribers than the competition, which leaves hope for KDDI or Softbank to overtake NTT DoCoMo as the wireless carrier leader in Japan.

All the happenings in the Japanese wireless carrier industry led to Android holding two-thirds of the Japanese smartphone market share, while iPhone has the other third. Despite Android’s handset market share, the Apple iTunes Store generates far more revenue than Google Play, although Google Play has been catching up over 2012. A trend seen in other regions as well.

App Annie also analyzed the top 20 iOS publishers in Japan by revenue from January 2012 to September 2012, finding that 18 of the top 20 publishers are gaming companies. The 20 publishers combine for more than half of the total value of all grossing content, with the top five publishers representing nearly one-third of all revenues. Also, Japanese companies dominate the chart, with only South Korean NHN, developer of LINE, French game developer Gameloft and Apple as the lone Western companies in the top 20. Publishers with deep pockets and market dominance in other regions such as Electronic Arts, Zynga, and Rovio, aren’t even in the top 20, which demonstrates the difficulty for Western companies to excel in the Japanese gaming market.

The games genre, to no one’s surprise, crushes the other app genres in revenue, with 77 percent of total revenues across all categories. The gaming category is the leader in revenue in other regions as well — the U.S. at 59 percent — but the category is not as dominate as the category is in Japan. GungHo Online’s Puzzle & Dragons, which recently reached the seven million user mark, is an example of a native mobile game for smartphones that’s leading the way for the gaming genre in Japan, demolishing the competition in terms of revenue.

Aside from games, social networking is a genre worth noting. iOS revenues for social networking apps grew 383 percent when App Annie compared its January 2012 versus its September 2012 data. Messaging app Line, which recently reached 100 million users, was the leading app in the social networking genre by revenue over a 12-month period ending in September 2012.