Eyeing Japan’s new year and far, far beyond

by Yoko Hani and Tomoko Otake

The future may be fundamentally uncertain, but people’s appetite for predictions of what will be happening in days, weeks, months, years or even decades to come is one thing, at least, that is certain to be part of it.

To satisfy that curiosity, while some people may turn to science fiction and others may choose fortunetelling of some sort, there are professionals in Japan and worldwide who are taking that curiosity to a new and higher plane — and putting the results of their detailed studies to concrete commercial or practical use.

Known as futurologists, or sometimes simply futurists, these specialists are in the business of prediction based not on hunches or feelings — let alone the stars, tea leaves or whatever — but on the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data, which they sift and interpret to advise companies where and how to allocate resources — whether R&D budgets, for example, or new products to meet foreseen new demands.

Already in many Western countries and America, major companies, such as British Telecom, consult or retain futurologists who draw on such fields as technology, meteorology, economics and psychology to prepare their far-sighted reports.

In Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, this new specialty has not yet made banner headlines in newspapers or mushroomed into a billion-dollar industry. However, there are signs that Japan Inc. is at last beginning to look forward in earnest again after the euphemistic “lost decade” since the economic bubble burst in the early 1990s.

One man in the vanguard of Japanese futurology is Masataka Yoshikawa, research director of the Institute of Life and Living at Hakuhodo Inc., the country’s second-largest advertising agency. In his work at the think tank that was founded in 1981 to report on emerging social trends and people’s lifestyles, Yoshikawa spends a lot of his time compiling a database he calls a mirai nenpyo (future timeline).

“The system is very simple,” Yoshikawa said. “We just collect articles from papers, magazines and the Web that mention plans, prospects and statistics concerning the future — such as ‘something is expected in or by the year 2000-and-whenever.’ “

In the past three years since his section was set up, Yoshikawa and two colleagues have amassed around 4,800 statements spanning the remainder of this new century, and including government policy plans, long-range weather forecasts and predicted developments in a wide range of fields from medicine to economics and demography. The “future timeline” they have produced can be accessed free of charge, but in Japanese only, by visiting www.seikatsusoken.jp/futuretimeline/

Considerable credibility

“We believe this data has considerable credibility as it was all officially made public,” Yoshikawa said. “However, we collect all the information we can, even if some of it contradicts other statistical projections on the same issue.

“That’s because our intention is not to review the data to try to establish if it is right or wrong. Instead, we use it to try to grasp the direction it points to and get a bird’s-eye view of trends into the future.”

As well as his research at the think tank, Yoshikawa said he is often asked for database-based predictions by the media, while also occasionally writing essays himself on topics such as “The life of a 50-year-old man in 2015.” That, he said, is not very difficult to imagine after closely consulting the database.

As for trends starting from next year, Yoshikawa said that one of the most significant ones that will impact on people’s lifestyle in Japan will be “demographic change.” The population has already started to shrink, and the timeline data clearly points to it halving to around 64 million or less by 2100. “This will have a tremendous impact on this country’s future,” he said.

Additionally, he said that in the coming 30 years the number of single-person households will rise dramatically, comprised both of senior citizens and younger men and women. By then, in fact, he expects that single-person households will top the number of family households made up of parents and children, which has long been the basic social unit in Japan.

While the ramifications of such a fundamental change will doubtless be manifold, one consequence will be the emergence of a new working role as a “me-agent,” Yoshikawa said.

“In the future,” he explained, “people will not be able to simply say that ‘as you are a man in your 40s, you must have a wife and kids and certain needs and wants at this stage in life.’ Then, individuals will have to design their lives themselves and promote themselves to other people. A ‘me-agent,’ who may work like agents for sports professionals do now, will be a popular service helping ordinary people to survive in such a society.”

That Yoshikawa would make such a seemingly speculative prediction may at first seem rather surprising, but that is because, as he said, “You cannot think about the future without being free of the current mind-set.”

Reactions not that positive

When Hakuhodo started the timeline project in 2003, Yoshikawa said, business reactions were not that positive because most felt they had to concentrate on survival in the present and they could not afford to think about the future. But recently, he said, that mind-set has started to change.

“Finally, after years and years of concentrating on keeping prices and costs down, many businesses seem to have overcome the damage the busting of the bubble caused. Now, they are entering a new stage where they are trying to detect future market possibilities and be creative in their thinking to survive the competition,” Yoshikawa said.

To cater to that demand for “applied futurology,” and with Yoshikawa’s timeline as one of its tools, in 2003 Hakuhodo also launched a future-business consultation service called “Foresight.” Although its client numbers have been gradually increasing, this has yet to grow into a full-fledged business, said Keigo Awata, senior director of Hakuhodo Foresight, who founded that section of around 10 members after learning about Ericsson Foresight, a future-orientated unit of the Sweden-based telecoms giant, in 2001.

Put simply, Awata said that the Foresight service helps companies to draw up scenarios of about five to 10 years in the future, as the capacity to do this authoritatively is not available in many firms.

“Five to 10 years from now looks far, but actually it’s not that far. However, though it may look easy to predict to there, actually it is not that easy to see,” Awata said, noting that, for example, nobody had imagined 10 years ago that this many people would be using cellphones — let alone ones with cameras, Internet access, TV, music and more.

Just as Yoshikawa spoke of the need to be “free of the current mind-set” in order to think about the future, Awata explained that to think about the future 10 years from now, business people need to be freed from short-term demand forecasts or foreseeable trends.

Instead, he insisted that to be successful in years to come, they have to imagine alternative scenarios and be seeking out the first signs of trends bubbling in society.

“Often business planning people know very well about their own industry and technology, but they are too busy to grasp the signs of changes in society and people’s lifestyles,” Awata said, adding that his Foresight team tries to narrow that gap through consultations.

Typically, those consultations take the form of workshops involving Foresight team members and clients, where they start by doing “scenario generation” based on reviewing various materials and articles from all sorts of media, including minor news briefs. They use the Institute of Life and Living’s future timeline, too.

Awata said that details of clients must remain confidential, but they have included a car company looking for future car-market scenarios and a beverage maker searching for a new product. Even a railway company has come along seeking “an innovative service idea” for the future, he said.

Although he conceded that “future consulting” is not yet big enough in Japan to be called an industry, Awata was in no doubt that its significance in creating a methodology to study “uncertainties” in the future — when the future is becoming more uncertain for business in the globalized world — can only grow.

“Future consulting has yet to make big money,” he said, “but we try to keep improving our techniques to improve our service. . . . After all, as French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur said: ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ “