Commentary / Japan

The need for more proactive communications

Low trust and changing values mean Japan can no longer fall back on its homogeneity

by Ross Rowbury

In his 1976 book “Beyond Culture,” anthropologist Edward T. Hall discussed the concept of high context and low context cultures. In the chart shown here, he showed Japan as the ultimate high context society. He defines a high context society as one in which implicit messages in context are preferred in communication and direct expressions tend to be avoided.

That should be so, as even today 98.5 percent of the population are Japanese. The sheer homogeneity of the culture means alignment of “common sense” and more attunement to others who all come from a similar cultural and ethnic background. This gives rise to such typical Japanese concepts such as “aun no kokyu (attunement)” and “kuuki wo yomu,” the ability to “read the air.”

It has also led to something that I am sure many long-term foreign residents of Japan have heard at one time or another: “We Japanese understand each other intrinsically. We do not need to make an effort to proactively communicate with each other.”

This has perhaps led to Japanese companies, and the management of companies based in Japan, to place less of an emphasis on strategic and proactive communications both to external and internal audiences. For the most part the lack of diversity has worked in favor of this in past years.

However, I believe there are reasons this is no longer the case. It is now imperative that Japanese companies, and companies operating in Japan, invest more in the communications process. Just the expectation that the message will get through and will be understood in the desired way is a luxury in Japanese society today.

Let’s start with trust. Since the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Japanese have become very cynical in terms of trust in their key institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer ranks 28 surveyed countries in terms of their trust in the key institutions of business, media, government and nongovernment organizations. The Edelman Trust Barometer found that the average trust index by the mass population in the four institutions in Japan is 34 points out of a possible 100. Japan ranks third from the bottom, one point above Russia and equal with Poland. This level of cynicism calls for the need for an almost radical level of transparency in communications with stakeholders. If your company’s chief communications officer is not empowered to do this you will not gain trust of stakeholders in Japan.

More critical for business is that only 40 percent of employees trust the company they work for in Japan — the lowest in the world. It seems as if the traditional view of the self-sacrificing salaryman may be a thing of the past. The onslaught of decades of sluggish economic growth, globalization and restructuring means employees will no longer follow management faithfully. With a tightening labor market and such low trust, internal communications — or employee engagement — is becoming critical in ensuring you are not leading a demotivated and disengaged workforce.

Secondly, while cultural and ethnic diversity are not Japan’s strengths, there is increasing background diversity that has arisen from both broader life experience, choice and changing societal values.

As a young employee of a Japanese company some 30 years ago, bonding (drinking) sessions with fellow team members was an almost nightly requirement. There was a trick I used to play when department general managers were present. I would say I could read his mind and guess what sort of a car he owned. Given permission to try this I would put my fingers to my temples and concentrate hard, eventually revealing that I thought the general manager drove a white Toyota Crown Super Saloon or Royal Saloon. Thirty years ago this was met with looks of astonishment and claims of “amazing” as I had correctly guessed the car. In those days it wasn’t hard. If you earned a promotion to general manager I am pretty sure the first thing you did was call a Toyota salesman. While a cute trick, it is indicative of the level of diversity in Japanese society at that time.

This trick would obviously not work today. The general manager might own a Nissan or an Audi, and while white cars apparently have the best resale value on the secondhand market, there is a much wider variety of colors available to the newly promoted executive.

Clearly in Japan, one size does not fit all any longer. Businesses and brands must be prepared to default to more diversity rather than homogeneity in their relations with stakeholders and consumers.

In recent months several companies have been taken by surprise at inflamed reactions by consumers at advertising campaigns they have run. Companies like H.I.S, Suntory and Cow Brand Soap, by no means lacking in experience in product brand communications, have had to pull campaigns due to negative reactions about perceived sexism or lack of prioritization of family over work. Five years ago such issues would not have occurred. They are, I believe, evidence of change as a new generation begins to drive consumerism and societal values.

For many years consumer spending and societal values were driven by Japan’s baby boomers. For the most part they all began life at the same starting line as Japan recovered from the devastation of the war and quickly rising incomes led to them becoming very aspirational consumers. Aspirational consumers with a high degree of homogeneity in lifestyle and values.

As those consumers go into retirement and the baton is passed to their children, now in their 30s and 40s, one must ask if this generation who grew up mostly affluent and well-educated with a wealth of experience of and influence from the West will have the same aspirational reactions as their parents.

I believe not. This generation, which is also digital savvy, although not digital native, is already shaping new values. The negative reactions against sexism in advertising outlined above are one example. The recent strides in LGBT rights with large Japanese companies such as Panasonic actively encouraging coming out are another.

The Edelman Earned Brand Survey shows that 40 percent of Japanese consumers will switch, avoid or boycott a brand because of its stance on societal issues, while 53 percent will not buy a brand because it stayed silent on an issue consumers believe it should be addressing. Values are changing, seemingly at an increasing pace, as this generation comes on line in consumer spending and shaping the values of society.

This cynicism matters to companies. An environment with low trust in institutions coupled with swiftly changing societal values means that the old adage of “we all understand each other” will hold less true with the passage of time. Now is the time for companies operating in Japan to step up to the plate and take leadership in more strategic and proactive communications with their stakeholders and consumers.

Ross Rowbury is president and CEO of the PR agency Edelman Japan. He advises senior business executives on issues ranging from corporate branding to media strategy and internal and external communications strategy.

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