It started off innocently enough: a bit reserved at first, then a few tweeted pleasantries. Five years and hundreds of conversations later, they're inseparable and the talk of the town.
But this is no ordinary love affair, and it's not even between two people, but two companies: Sharp Corp., the electronics manufacturer, and Tanita Corp., maker of scales and health products.
Welcome to the Japanese world of brotherly Twitter love, where official corporate accounts are more likely to strike up lasting alliances than hurl insults at each other. Companies are finding that it's easier to be friendly online than in person, in a place where people still bow and exchange business cards with both hands. Sharp and Tanita's bromance, which has even inspired a comic-book series, is drawing huge audiences and inspiring others to do the same in search of social-media marketing gold.
Takahiro Yamamoto has run Sharp's twitter account since 2011, amassing more than 390,000 followers. The account is regularly among the most retweeted in Japan, but he credits Tanita as his inspiration.
"Tanita-san was the pioneer," he said. Yamamoto, who is based out of Sharp's Osaka headquarters and previously worked on the company's TV commercials, said Tanita's posts encouraged him to loosen up when he first started tweeting.
Tanita repays the compliment. "Sharp-san is amazing," said the man behind the account at the weighing-scale maker, which asked that he not be identified. "There was no plan in the beginning" to have the two accounts work so closely together. "It was a very natural back-and-forth."
These kind of public tie-ups make sense in Japan, where consumers have come to rely on social media to gather news about companies and products that they’re interested in, according to Yuri Gorai, an analyst at Euromonitor in Tokyo. Line Corp., Japan's biggest instant messaging service with more than 70 million monthly active users, has also attracted companies that want to communicate directly with customers. Twitter had more than 40 million users in Japan last year, up from 6.7 million in 2011, according to the San Francisco-based company.
At Tanita, known for its high-tech scales, the Twitter maven comes across as another ordinary businessman, clad in a simple black suit and a tie. But with 207,000 followers, he's also considered a minor celebrity both inside and outside the Tokyo-based company.
Sharp and Tanita don't have a business alliance or any deals; many of the conversations between the duo have little to do with Sharp or Tanita's products. Sharp's Yamamoto often tweets about his pet parrot, Nel.
In a typical exchange, Tanita tweeted that he would go snap pictures at a photo booth if he managed to amass 50,000 retweets. Sharp's Yamamoto was impressed: "Next time I see you I want a picture of us together."
In another, Tanita recounts being asked by his boss: "How's Sharp-san?"
Given that their products rarely compete for customers, the main benefit from this and other Twitter bromances is consumer brand awareness, according to Euromonitor's Gorai. "Companies such as Tanita and Sharp, who communicate with followers more casually and frankly beyond promotional purposes, can gain a lot of followers," she said.
Others have also joined in the fun. Ai Yamada, who runs Sega Sammy Holding Inc.'s Twitter account, invited Tanita's tweeter to her company's game arcades (they still exist in Japan) to take photo-booth pictures. The relationship paid off: Tanita is developing weight scales that play music from old arcade games. "It's like performing in a jazz combo," Yamada said.
It was only a matter of time until the online romance spilled over into the real world. The mavens see each other periodically in real life — Yamada recently met with his counterpart at Tanita at Sega's promotional cafe, where posts about their interaction got more than 6,000 retweets and 8,000 likes. Eventually, the trio took a trip to a hot spring resort. While they hiked and ate healthy meals, they also ended up spending a lot of time tweeting on their smartphones.
"Sometimes there were some awkward silences," Yamamoto said. "We have audiences to engage with."
These relationships also help to put a human face on what might otherwise be a sterile corporate image —literally. A comic book series reenacting the Twitter exchanges portrays Sharp and Tanita's Twitter accounts as real-life characters. After achieving popularity online, they were put into print by comic-book publisher Libre Inc. In one episode, Tanita's persona is worried about not having Twitter’s blue check mark that authenticates a tweeter’s identity.
"What if our followers think I'm a fake account!?" Tanita tweeted.
"Poor Tanita-san," Sharp responded. "Please give Tanita-san the blue check!"