A Japanese Perspective on ‘Exotic’ Britain

How Japan capitalises on all things British and reinterprets them for a local audience

In a recent article, Tokyoesque touched upon the way that Japanese companies strategically capitalise on what is deemed as being ‘Japanese’ in the western market when they’re looking to appeal to international audiences. Here, we explore what lies beneath the Japanese fascination with British culture, offering examples of how the seemingly ‘exotic’ can be transformed into something more familiar within a local context, and suggest how this might be helpful in terms of potential branding strategies for UK companies.

How do Japanese audiences tend to perceive British culture?

According to a research study on how Britain is perceived by the Japanese, the top five associations were as follows:

1) Tea (specifically, afternoon tea)

2) The Royal family

3) Big Ben

4) London

5) The Beatles

These might seem like fairly stereotypical associations that are also shared by non-Japanese, but what may be interesting is that even though London ranks fourth here, a large proportion of Japanese people tend not to equate British culture with being modern. The same study found that more than half of the respondents think British culture is ‘traditional’, whilst only 25% consider British culture to be “modern.” Despite the fact that London is a global centre representing some of the most sophisticated and progressive streams of culture including art, fashion and technology, it seems that the primary association among Japanese is still largely with a more Victorian culture.

A Uniquely Japanese Perspective? There’s Something kawaii about British Culture

Another research survey, conducted as part of a campaign by Virgin Atlantic, asked both Japanese and non-Japanese audiences what they would like to do if they have the chance to visit Britain. The top three answers from the Japanese respondents were as follows:

1) Visit Buckingham Palace

2) Experience traditional afternoon tea and sweets

3) Visit the Lake District

On the other hand, the non-Japanese respondents selected the following choices:

1) Visit Buckingham Palace

2) View London scenery from the Shard or the London Eye

3) Visit Edinburgh Castle

While “traditional afternoon tea and sweets” ranked second among Japanese, non-Japanese audiences ranked this activity in 15th place. This is something that is more unique from a Japanese perspective. Another point is that Japanese seem to prefer the Lake District more than non-Japanese visitors do (they ranked it 3rd vs 5th among non-Japanese). This is because Beatrix Potter’s famous Peter Rabbit series is quite well-known in Japan so, besides campaigns developed by local tourist boards, people have learned about the Lake District in relation to these stories too. We mentioned in our recently published blog article that mascots are widely accepted in Japanese market. Characters including Peter Rabbit, Paddington Bear and Winnie-the-Pooh are some of the prime examples that have come to signify the UK and have become widely accepted by Japanese as being something kawaii (cute), in a similar way to these mascots.

If we look at Paddington Bear, for instance, the character’s popularity manifests itself in Japan in a number of ways. Despite the comparatively low box office earnings compared with other film franchises such as Harry Potter, as a character, Paddington reminds many Japanese people of the UK in that he is synonymous with the iconic Paddington Station in London. There is an official Paddington website in Japanese that delivers the latest news and information so fans can stay in the loop. The world’s first Paddington Bear theme park — known as Paddington Town — opened in 2018 as part of Sagamiko Resort near Tokyo. It is 4,420 square metres in size and hopes to attract families with young children, aiming for one million visitors annually. The fact that Paddington would inspire this type of permanent fixture also speaks to the bear’s timeless appeal and popularity even among the different generations.

Examples of How British Culture is Perceived in the Japanese Market

  1. British-style Pubs

What’s more quintessentially British than a good old-fashioned pub? Chain restaurants that seek to emulate the pub experience in Japan have risen in popularity, especially in urban areas like Tokyo. The most prominent chain of British-style pubs is ‘HUB’, which was established in 1998 and now has more than 100 locations across Japan. It also operates 82 Ale House. HUB is more focused on providing a casual and relaxed atmosphere in which guests can enjoy classic British dishes, such as fish & chips or a Sunday roast, but with a slight local twist adapted to more closely suit Japanese palettes. On the other hand, 82 Ale House does serve food but tailors its offering more towards domestic and international craft beers — a sector that has experienced a real boom in Japan over the past few years.

2. Pokemon Sword and Shield

This example isn’t so much of a localisation of a British concept, but an integration of Britishness into a Japanese release. It was recently announced that the new generation of Pokemon game, Sword and Shield will be released later this year. There has been huge speculation that it will be set in a fictional version of England. Japanese fans think the new Pokemon town, named Galar, is based on England not only because of the similar geographical shape but also because the scenes include what they imagine represents and characterises British culture. These include a pointy large tower that looks somewhat like Big Ben, an English countryside that depicts villages and farms, the city centre that people think is London but is rather full of medieval style architecture, and a gigantic battling stage which resembles a football stadium. While these aspects certainly comprise one part of a more touristy idea of British culture and history, it can be considered that the Japanese perception of it is rather limited and skewed. It’s important to understand which aspects of British culture are most often highlighted among Japanese audiences. This can help to strategise how to capitalise on the Japanese perception of “Britishness.”

3. The British Royal Family

On the whole, Japanese audiences are eagerly receptive to grand affairs and displays of national pride from western countries, particularly Royal occasions. Members of the older generation are especially likely to be drawn to official memorabilia and merchandise. Whereas commemorative mugs, plates and other such souvenirs are produced for occasions involving western Royal Families (think William and Kate’s wedding, or the birth of Princess Charlotte), this would not be the case in Japan. Instead, fans can opt to purchase the officially recognised brands used by the Japanese Royal Family themselves, but not specific souvenirs featuring their photographs. Biographies of celebrities and historical figures are often communicated in an entertaining and informative way through televised docudramas. These employ a combination of reenactments, official footage and Japanese voiceovers to detail a particular person’s backstory or a significant event deemed worth covering. Along the same lines, stories of scandals and controversial happenings are especially interesting to a large proportion of Japanese audiences as they thrive on a sense of drama. Notably, these programmes also show the reactions of well-known local personalities to add another dimension for viewers.

So how can you leverage Britishness in order to create appeal in Japan?

It’s true that your product or service may have very little to do with British aspects such as afternoon tea, traditional sweets or London. Naturally, the first port of call is to effectively localise communications to demonstrate what your brand can offer that isn’t available locally. It can also be useful, however, to link the core message back to what is considered to be ‘British’. Brands should ensure they are still respecting Japanese cultural cues though, as overlooking this could result in a costly misunderstanding. In order to achieve a balance here, it is first helpful to grasp the myriad of ways in which Japanese audiences relate to ‘Britishness’ as an overall concept and how to leverage this. For instance, the Japanese are often passionate about supporting and promoting regionally-produced goods. This is something that resonates with them about Japanese companies, so covering specific regional methods used to create goods in the UK may be one way to appeal to Japanese audiences.

Tokyoesque is well-placed to work with you to formulate a market entry or expansion strategy based on Japanese consumer insights.

Contact us for a free consultation.