Why Japan’s mobile news startups are scared to disrupt


This is a complex issue, but I think it boils down to this:

Most of Japan’s news app creators do not put the interests of their users above the interests of content publishers. So while users around the world can read news in apps with beautiful typography of an appropriate size (see Pocket, Instapaper, or Reeder), most Japanese readers – or those who use domestically produced apps anyway – are given the original webpage in an in-app browser, often showing typeface that’s too small to read, or a page that has not been optimized for mobile.

While the app developers I’ve spoken to are reluctant to acknowledge it, most industry observers I ask point to publishers who cry foul over copyright law, complaining about stripped-out ads, and a lack of metrics from readers who come on site. These debates occurred on a global scale years ago, and while they were not resolved in a neat and tidy fashion, the internet appears to have generally settled that such use (whether it is via a republished RSS feed for via scraping) is ok [1].

But Japanese companies who have ventured to create news apps have almost universally opted to err on the side of caution by showing the original webpage content in their app, as is, without any effort to ensure that it’s readable on mobile [2]. They have purposefully chosen to not disrupt or challenge current content models.

Let’s look at a few examples from some of Japan’s leading news apps. Here’s Gunosy:


Gunosy does what most Japanese news apps do. They serve up the original web page when the title is clicked, whether its very readable or not. Other Japanese apps that do this are Presso, Romly, Vingow, Mynd, and Kamelio [3]. These news apps are primarily aggregators or curation tools. I wouldn’t go so far as to call any of them ‘news readers’, because technically, you’re just being directed to a traditional reading experience on the source site.

SmartNews’s approach is an interesting one, maybe the only one that is even a little daring. They are one of the few companies to present a readability mode, boasting offline caching as a feature for Japanese users who might be beyond internet signal on the subway. When you tap to read an article on SmartNews, you are flashed an option to read in ‘SmartMode’. This is SmartNews’s more readable view, but it’s presented as something the user must choose to view deliberately. What’s more, when you press back, the app sneakily presents the original source page (see this below). This is a clever way of giving both the publisher and the user what they want, and I’m sure it took them a while to figure out this compromise.


Line News is also mildly daring, showing longer excerpts relating to one story, collected from various sources. Tapping on any of those sources brings you to the original source, however (see lower left), including ads and undesirable cruft (lower right).

Overall I think it is pretty clear that the relationship that exists between content publishers and news apps that tiptoe around their requirements/expectations is not good for innovation in the content space. Publishers cling to old monetization models instead of searching for new ones, and Japanese readers are denied the kind of beautified reading experience that the rest of the world enjoys [4].

And that’s a shame.



  1. For more on this, see ‘Is Flipboard Legal?’ (2010), and ‘Could loading a feed into an RSS reader be grounds for legal action?’ (2010). Of course now even Apple has a ‘Reader’ function for Safari and Mobile Safari that strips away ads and gives you a simplified, readable version.  ↩

  2. Mobile-friendly news sites are far more common in Japan than in other countries, so if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that. the original page view on mobile is typically not so bad.  ↩

  3. Kamelio does some interesting things with timelines which I think are admirable, but they still opt to show the original source in this way.  ↩

  4. Unless they use something like Pocket, of course, which many do.  ↩