Fanning the flames: how to lose trust and alienate Japanese consumers


By Melissa Francis

Tokyoesque are experts in Europe-Japan relations and provide clients with unique cultural insights that can be used to accelerate business growth across the globe. This week, we take a look at some examples of controversial advertising in Japan and why they caused such a stir among locals.

The rise of political incorrectness

Political incorrectness is everywhere we look, in one form or another. Social media has been especially instrumental in spreading concerns, and this extends to something that has become a staple in the vast majority of our lives — commercials. Platforms like social media, online blogs and forums allow for deeper discussions about problematic themes and styles of commercials.

A Business Insider Japan article notes that there is increasingly a gap between the concepts dreamed up by advertising creatives and the beliefs of the audience they seek to target. In other words, there’s a lack of initial research to uncover what people would be averse to, and so brands risk alienating those they are trying to appeal to.

A prime example from the US came earlier this year with the Kim Kardashian-West ‘KIMONO’ fiasco. She faced backlash — primarily from non-Japanese people — for her apparently ignorant cultural appropriation of the word ‘KIMONO’ for her underwear brand. So what’s the situation actually like within Japan? Do people have the same reactions to these types of controversial promotions?

Here are some recent examples.

1. Ginza Iseyoshi Kimono

Haafu no ko wo umitai kata ni (for those who want to give birth to half-Japanese children) — Source: Business Insider Japan

Kimono seller Ginza Iseyoshi released a series of print ads in 2016 that attempted to generate appeal among modern Japanese women. They were produced by two female advertising executives. Although these ads were highly praised in the industry at the time, even winning an award for creative copywriting, they belatedly sparked a roaring debate among Japanese people on social media in 2019. The key message communicated throughout these ads is that wearing one of the company’s kimono gives women the power to attract foreign men and get pregnant with their child.

2. Shiseido Integrate Cosmetics

#Let’sBecomeGoodWomen — Source: Shiseido

Cosmetics giant Shiseido came under fire for its 2016 advertising campaign to promote its Integrate range. The commercial concludes with a totally different message from the one that is directly stated at the beginning. A woman, portrayed by actress Nana Komatsu, is seen celebrating her 25th birthday along with two other female friends. They have a birthday cake replete with candles and are drinking sparkling wine to celebrate. After wishing her a happy birthday, however, the woman looks depressed and says she doesn’t feel like celebrating at all.

The three of them launch into a rant between themselves about all the gendered aspects they hate about being a woman in Japanese society, even criticising the idea that women should present themselves as being kawaii (cute). This appears to go against what make-up brands stand for, but then they backtrack on their criticism, suddenly taking the stance that it’s actually a benefit to be considered ‘cute’.

When Japanese women saw this commercial, they couldn’t empathise with the double standard that was being presented. Had the ending been different, and had it not been advertising cosmetics, the message might have been more successful. Given the context, however, this simply wasn’t the case. The associated campaign hashtag #いい女になろう (#Let’sBecomeGoodWomen) certainly didn’t help the cause any further.

3. Nissin Noodles: the whitewashing of Naomi Osaka

At the beginning of 2019, Nissin — who are well-known for producing Cup Noodles — released an animated commercial featuring the main character from manga/anime series Price of Tennis. This was a perfectly acceptable move, until they also introduced real-life half-Japanese, half-American tennis star Naomi Osaka. Everyone who knows Osaka is familiar with how she looks, with some Japanese features and darker skin. The way she was presented, however, was completely different from the reality. In the commercial, Osaka was whitewashed and made to look ‘more Western’, despite the fact that she isn’t white at all.

This resulted in a massive backlash on social media. Parents of hafu (half Japanese) children were also furious as they felt that Nissin’s decision effectively erased their children’s biracial identities. One of the main issues is that fair, white skin remains to be a beauty standard in Japan with many cosmetic products claiming to whiten one’s skin tone. Despite Osaka’s sporting talent, which is certainly revered in Japan, there is a certain level of wishful thinking around the idea that she is ‘Western’.

Source: Toyo Keizai

4. BLENDY Coffee: turning students into cows

Instant coffee brand BLENDY raised eyebrows with their ‘Extra Rich’ bottled milk coffee commercial, portraying Japanese high school students as cows by giving them all nose hoops. The scenario is a typical graduation ceremony, where the headteacher congratulates students for their hard work and announces which University they will be attending. In this case, however, a pun is made on the Japanese word for ‘graduation’ (sotsugyou), becoming sotsugyuu instead (gyu means ‘cow’). Rather than having names, each student has an assigned number, reducing them to little more than tools and stripping them of their individual identities.

Of course, there are also further connotations at play here, related to humans and milk, such as breastfeeding. So the focus on one particular female student who possesses ‘something special’ can also be perceived negatively. Despite the criticisms, however, some praised the satirical stance the commercial takes with regards to the Japanese ideals of studying hard and achieving goals.

Source: IT Media

5. Moony Nappies — The ‘Mums Don’t Cry’ Song

Household products manufacturer Unicharm manage a brand of nappies called ‘Moony’. As part of a promotional campaign in 2017, they wrote a song supposedly designed to encourage new mothers who may be struggling to deal with looking after their first child. The visuals depict the everyday life of a woman looking after her baby by herself, without any help from a partner or husband. She tries to get time to herself, but has to be more attentive towards the child.

The problem arises when we hear the message that is being communicated through the song itself, with words including: ‘Mums don’t cry…it’s bad for mums to cry…you’re stronger than that.’ This kind of message would likely make many Japanese mothers feel ashamed that they’re not living up to their responsibilities as parents, especially in a society where the business of others is often a hot topic and there can be stiff competition between mothers in particular.

Source: Buzzfeed Japan

6. Amazon Echo

In May 2019, Amazon released a commercial for Echo in Japan starring actors Satoru Nogawa and Kumi Sakurai. Nogawa plays the role of a son who is preparing a home-cooked meal for his upcoming dinner date. We don’t see his dinner partner at any point during the commercial. He utilises Alexa to help set timers so he can perfect his recipe. Then, while cooking, he asks Alexa to make a call to his mother (Sakurai), who helps him to get the authentic ‘mother’s potato and meat curry’ flavour.

This ad faced public backlash and was described as ‘disgusting’ because the son’s behaviour came across as abnormal and rude towards his mother. In their experience, this wasn’t an ideal or realistic portrayal of family bonds. For example, he hangs up on his mother without even thanking her. It might seem petty, but some female viewers also criticised the man’s lack of inventiveness, instead relying on a pre-existing recipe he learned from his mother.

Source: Tommy Diary

Other sources of Japanese viewer conflict

An annoying voice-over

When it comes to troublesome commercials, one of the aspects that consumers find to be most off-putting is the type of voice used in the narration. Using someone with the wrong type of voice could make viewers feel alienated from the key brand message and as a result they might lose interest. For instance, an advertisement for sushi chain restaurant Sushiro featured Afro-san, a rapper and singer from the group ‘MOROHA’. He has a characteristically animated nasal-sounding voice, which viewers decided was unsuitable for this voiceover. Similarly, the commercial for SAMSUNG’s Galaxy S9 smartphone was criticised for employing a narrator with an irritating, grating and high-pitched tone. The general consensus is that it’s difficult to take someone with this tone of voice seriously as they don’t sound convincing or appealing.

A confusing premise

Many Japanese commercials are well-known globally for featuring elements of slapstick comedy, with various characters, idols and celebrities such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu making key appearances. If the comedy works, and the idea is in keeping with something the character or tarento is renowned for, and the tone matches their personality it should be successful to at least some degree. But sometimes, the emphasis on slapstick comedy is too strong and instead of creating appeal, it simply creates more of a headache for the viewer. The subject matter can seem so random that viewers easily forget what the commercial was even for. Nissin Foods have come under fire for their series of hyperactive, nonsensical commercials for U.F.O instant noodles. The ads were seemingly designed with Gen Z in mind, featuring emojis, virtual characters and loud music, but ultimately it becomes frustrating to watch.

Source: Instagrammer News

The moral of the story? Do your research to avoid sending unwanted messages

That’s the key takeaway here. If you’re going to offer your product or service in the Japanese market, are allocating a significant portion of your budget for promotion and your ads receive the kind of reception the above examples did, it’s unlikely to look good for your brand. By running research groups and feedback sessions with the target demographics for these products, and encouraging them to voice their honest thoughts, you’ll stand a much higher chance of appealing to the people you want to resonate with in Japan.

For more, see our previous article about advertising mishaps relating to gender equality in Japan.

Tokyoesque specialises in localising marketing strategies to help western brands adapt for the Japanese market. Feel free to contact us or fill out our free diagnostic to see where you stand in terms of making a strong impact in the Japanese market.


Written by

Cultural insight agency connecting Europe and Japan. Tokyoesque’s Market Readiness Score measures how to succeed in the world’s third largest market.

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