Top 5: Cultural Insights That Your Business Needs To Know About Japan

Feb 21 · 6 min read

In 2013, the Japanese government set about creating a three-pronged approach to break free of economic stagnation. Known colloquially as the “Abenomics” strategy, named after the incumbent prime minister, Shinzō Abe, the initiative has catalysed huge economic changes including almost 50 per cent lower unemployment, 2.5 million more women in work and a 53.7 JPY increase in the Japanese GDP.

Now is an exciting time to begin targeting Japan. With the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place in 2020, plus the Osaka-Kansai Japan Expo in 2025, the potential marketing opportunities for sport, tourism, AI and biotechnologies are huge. Moreover, the recently signed EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement will see a reduction in tariffs, enabling better opportunities for exports.

The risk factors

Of course, as with any foray into a new market, there are plenty of risk factors for businesses trying to extend their global reach. Historically, Japan is one of only four countries in the world to never have been colonised by Europe. As a result, we have a region that is culturally and commercially disparate from everything we know as Westerners. Our research has led us to identify five key differences in Japan:

· A less direct, more polite approach to advertising

· Japanese and English alphabets/vocabulary

· A preference for busy, rather than simplistic, design

· Continued loyalty towards brick-and-mortar retail

· Traditional folklore

With our extensive knowledge of the Japanese market and world-leading research methods, we have examined the key factors that make for an effective launch strategy in the East. These insights are further underpinned by anecdotal evidence that shows what went right, and what went wrong, for brands launching in Japan.

Credit: Fabrizio Chiagan

The advertising misfire that led to an entire product launch for Pepsi

In spring 2018, global soft drinks powerhouse Pepsi made a tactical move to launch their own “Japanified” product — J-Cola. With no expenses spared on the marketing budget, the product ad depicts an extravagant Japanese festival, complete with monster trucks, bright colours and some of Japan’s best-known musicians.

The latter isn’t a new marketing tactic for the brand. In 1997, for example, Pepsi appealed to Western markets by having the Spice Girls front their “Generation Next” campaign. In less than a month, their cola market share increased from 15.1 per cent to 19.6.

However, they were not always as successful on a global scale. Notably, in 1994, Pepsi tried to take an American advertising model to Japan: comparative advertising. The competitive nature of the commercials, which saw taste testers comparing Pepsi and Coke, was so poorly received in Japan that five major television channels in Tokyo refused to air it. Comparative advertising is even illegal in countries such as Argentina, but the resounding message here was that aggressive, competitive marketing did not appeal to an Eastern audience.

Two decades later, Pepsi have done their research. Suntory, who head up the Japanese Pepsi brand, factored the results of the 2015 GlobalData Q4 Survey into their Japanese product. It revealed that 18 to 34-year-olds found the concept of a drink tailored to night-time consumption appealing, up to a 32 per cent margin. This resulted in the “midnight” J-Cola concept, further bolstered by the above mentioned advertising campaign. The sales figures of this new product remain to be seen, but the lesson here is that brands, no matter how large, cannot rely on their reputation on home soil.

While Frozen translates, smoke fails to light up the Japanese market

Translation is one of the most difficult concepts for global brands. Where there are common language roots or shared cultural norms, brand messaging may translate more effectively. In English to Japanese however, there are considerations such as:

· The existence of three primary writing scripts — Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana

· Japanese is written from top to bottom

· More English words are used in Japanese than vice versa

· Japanese has a more limited vocabulary (e.g. no auxiliary verbs) and communication may be determined by age or class

Disney hit ‘Frozen’ became the third-highest grossing film in Japan, and for that, we can thank the translators. Rather than directly translating the title, it was re-named Anna and the Snow Queen, while the lyrics for the much-loved ballad ‘Let It Go’ were thoughtfully translated to convey the emotion of the song. In comparison, cigarette brand Salem’s famous “Salem, feeling free”, slogan translated literally as “when smoking Salem, you will feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty”.

These insights show that it is not enough to simply plug a slogan into a machine translation — brands need to understand how their products are received in the Japanese market and try to appeal to the cultural complexities of their emotions in order to truly sell to them effectively.

Busy web design in the skim-reading generation

In a 2008 study of US consumers’ consumption of websites, it was revealed that Western visitors only read 20 to 28 per cent of words per website visit. This has led to a generation of simplistic web design, with large headers and emboldened fonts to draw the reader’s eye.

Those who wish to launch a website in Japan should ignore this approach entirely. The logographic nature of Japanese text, combined with programming languages tending to favour US/European text, leads to a far more crowded representation of online content. This chaotic, brightly coloured web design suits Japanese readers fine — they do not need to skim read the text as their brains are processing symbols. Web designers should heed these cultural differences when launching their product in the East — particularly when we consider than just 23.5 per cent of the Japanese population uses a smartphone, compared to 85 per cent of consumers in the UK.

Credit: Eddi Aguirre

Loyalty beats digital

With such a relatively low number of smartphone users, it’s no surprise than Japanese consumers are less convinced about online retail. According to our research, 80 per cent of Tokyo residents between 18 and 64 years of age shop in brick and mortar stores. Respondents to the 2014 Consumer Survey preferred the “overall experience of going shopping”.

These findings were echoed in the Epsilon survey into Japanese consumer loyalty, which revealed that shoppers held value for money and customer service in extremely high regard. Westerners looking to target Japanese markets should heed the warning of online retailers such as eBay, whose digital, non-customer service-focused approach led to the company bowing out of the East. The lesson to be learned here is that retailers should earn their customers trust, which cannot be done without first researching and understanding the buyer.

Pampers should have plumped for peaches

Once again, Japan proves that large Western brands cannot always rely upon the reputation of their branding to succeed in the East. Procter & Gamble, whose Pampers product shifts 789,000 units in the UK per year, was almost run out of business in Japan. When the brand launched its disposable nappy range in Japan in the 1970s, sales took a nosedive.

Research into popular folklore would have revealed that the stork, a common Western symbol used for baby product advertising, has no significance in Japan. Rather, the “peach boy”, telling the story of Momotaro, the son of a peach, may have had a far bigger impact. Brands which rely on emotive, family-led advertising must familiarise themselves with Japanese traditions before attempting to target this new market.

Whatever your product or industry, getting the right cultural message is integral for a successful launch strategy in Japan. Contact the Tokyoesque team today for invaluable insights into consumer buying trends and Japanese customs to help your business succeed.


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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