Japan is one of the most iPhone-dominant countries in the world, but you won’t find many locals lamenting green chat bubbles in iMessage. They’re much more likely to use Line, a cross-platform messaging app that established a commanding grip on the country more than a decade ago, and shows no sign of slipping. 

Line launched in 2011, three months after the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan. Employees of South Korean web giant Naver, based in the country at the time, witnessed the disaster take down the usual telecommunications networks and resolved to build an alternative. In the 12 years since, Line has entrenched itself in Japan, in a similar way to KakaoTalk in South Korea or WeChat in China. It’s also become popular in Thailand and Taiwan.

Line is much more than a simple messaging app, with various features including music streaming, news, and even securities investment. Over 70% of the Japanese population uses the app. Businesses and governments at all levels use it to communicate through custom interfaces; for example, Tokyo operated a discount scheme for people who could show proof of Covid-19 vaccination through Line. 

The app’s most enduring influence is its pioneering of stickers, the oversized emoji that users buy in packs or download as part of a subscription. Brands ranging from Pokémon to Louis Vuitton compete for space, while Line’s own characters — like Brown the bear — have become popular in their own right. The Line Friends store in Tokyo’s Harajuku district often sees lengthy queues, and a Times Square branch opened in 2017.

Not everything Line tries works out. Last month, it ended service for its Clova voice assistant, offering refunds to people who had bought compatible smart speakers. Several other features like taxi-hailing, a livestreaming video service, and a blogging platform have also shut down. 

But Line remains an essential part of most Japanese internet users’ everyday life. Line Corporation — now merged with Yahoo Japan and jointly owned by SoftBank Group — has the space to experiment, and continues to do so. 

App name:LINE
Developer:LINE Corporation (formerly NHN Japan)
Release date:June 23, 2011
Platforms:iOS, Android, Windows, macOS