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Insights Into Japanese Consumers And The Cute Factor - With Matthew Alt and Brian Salsberg

April 10, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 108

Tackling the topic of Japan can be a substantial undertaking. There is on one hand the ongoing public dialogue of the long-term challenges that are facing Japan's well-being. An aging population, a low birthrate, and even impediments to effective leadership are just some of the issues that the country needs to address in the years to come. And since March 2011, there is now the added layer of recovery from the Great Tohoku Earthquake. At present only one of the 54 nuclear reactors remains in operation, and it is due to shutdown in May.

In some ways news coming out of Japan seems to paint a less than rosy picture, but to hear two American expatriates - Matthew Alt of AltJapan and Brian Salsberg of McKinsey and Company - talk about their daily lives while offering views of the country they have come to love, brings perhaps a much-needed perspective to examining Japan as a whole. Alt is awaiting the release of his new book, 'Yurei Attack,' forthcoming this summer, and again treated us with a discerning analysis of contemporary Japanese culture. Salsberg, a principal at one of the world's largest management consulting firms, provided a comprehensive portrayal of the Japanese consumer, a subject that's often at the focal point of his professional research in the last five years. Both felt fortunate to partake in Tokyo life, a cosmopolitan city that - as they both agreed - is still one of the greatest, if not the greatest city in the world.

AT: You both know and understand the Japanese consumer. Brian - as the lead for McKinsey's Consumer & Shopper Insights, could you just brief us on how the Japanese consumer differs from his or her American counterparts?

Brian: I would start by saying that probably the biggest difference is that the Japanese consumer is still probably the most discerning consumer in the world. That being said we at McKinsey about a year and a half, two years ago did a report called The New Japanese Consumer. It did point out that we are seeing over the past five to six years more of a shift towards Western type behaviors, particularly when it comes to the appreciation of value. If you look at the most successful retailers in Japan, like the rest of the world we are seeing a shrinking middle, and a lot more success at two ends of the spectrum, whether it's the premium luxury or the value part of the spectrum. It's well-known that when IKEA first entered they failed in this market and then they came back, and people were sure they would fail again. When CostCo first entered with five or six stores everyone was counting the moments that they would close up shop. All of these companies are now wildly successful. And the last thing I'll add, an interesting point, about a company like IKEA is while they're actually selling the same products in basically the same business model that they have elsewhere there are certain things they still have had to do differently, for example the IKEA model around the world is buy, bring and build it yourself. In Japan, for an additional cost, there are delivery services, and you can get support for building it. So I think it's interesting how the retail environment has evolved to meet both the specific needs of the Japanese consumer, but also the models that work around the world absolutely do work in Japan.

AT: Matt we've covered this before in our previous interview, the importance of cute in reaching out to people. When it comes to reaching out to consumers, how important is the cute factor, commonly known as "kawaii" in Japan?

Matt: Well kawaii is almost effectively a philosophy here in Japan. It certainly doesn't work for all products, it doesn't work for all situations, and in fact the places where you tend to see cute characters are generally either in a mascot type situation, whether they're on foods, or they're in a situation where they're acting as mediators. But the flip side of that is when Japanese are trying to emphasize the quality you almost never see kawaii imagery associated with it. A perfect example of this is if you buy a cheap stereo or a DVD player there will inevitably be little, anthropomorphic characters in the instruction manual, showing "don't pour water on me!" and it will show a crying DVD player with water being poured on it, or "don't leave me out in the sun!" and everybody's seen this. But if you go out to buy a new Lexus you won't see cute characters in the manual there because that's a luxury product, a high-end product, kawaii characters don't have a role in that type of situation.

Brian: I agree, and what I find interesting is there are still some anomalies, as a Westerner would see it, with this whole kawaii mentality. Where I see it is, if you look at a company like Disney, the merchandise is completely different than let's say the Disney stores in the US. In Japan there's not so much children buying costumes and toys, but much more of a target audience of 25- to 40-year-old women buying Disney characters for their phones and other things.

Fast retailing constantly has these T-shirt campaigns. Last week I was at Narita airport, and the entire store was Snoopy, and most stores don't even have a kids' section. So there's no doubt that there's still something unique about the Japanese consumer.

Matt: I would extend that a little bit. I agree Japan is an absolute machine for creating characters. One of the fundamental differences I think between Japanese and Western culture is you can embrace kawaii without sacrificing your masculinity or looking like a grown child. Japanese culture has a way of playing with traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. For instance there are historical heroes who are extremely - they're gay - but they're extremely masculine. Or to flip it around you have historical heroes who are basically a ladies' man but extremely effeminate. So you have this play with gender and typical roles that are a little bit more fluid, and that's one of the reasons I think why kawaii has permeated to the degree it has in Japanese society. And it has nothing to do with Japanese people being "a nation of thirteen-year-olds," as MacArthur once famously said.

AT: You've both published books so let's talk about that for a little bit. Brian, as one of the editors of Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works, could you just briefly tell us about the kind of response the book received because of the Great Tohoku Earthquake?

Brian: Certainly the earthquake created a different market for the book in terms of interest in Japan. And just an interesting anecdote about the book - we finished the book, just by bizarre coincidence on March 11, and by that I mean we had agreed with the publisher that we would have to submit the final galleys electronically to the printing press in Canada by 5pm Japan time. So we were actually transmitting a very large file at 2:46pm on March 11 when the earthquake struck, and the book was to be printed on Monday morning March 14.

What's interesting about that is, that week we put everything on hold and had a series of editorial calls where - if you remember - at that point March 14, 15, 16 was when many people thought that the nuclear plant in Fukushima would potentially explode and we weren't sure of what would remain of Japan, and history could really have been rewritten. So we literally just said, okay, let's pull the plug for now. We then had to make a decision a week or two later on what to do and what we actually did was we had all of our 80 authors - we gave them two weeks - at obviously a very trying time - to rewrite parts of their essays. And thirty percent of the people made some changes, we added a bunch of new content in the first chapter, and we went ahead and published in July 2011, a month behind schedule.

The interesting thing though, as we say in the introduction of our book, our big takeaway was that Japan now faces two emergencies. One was the tsunami-earthquake-nuclear radiation situation. But the other emergency - if you will - are all these other underlying challenges that this country faced which didn't change because of the earthquake. Last point I'll make on this one - when we first talked to publishers about a book by a bunch of well-known people in Japan, the reception was lukewarm, again before the earthquake. Our publisher in the US, of the English version, actually committed to publishing a grand total of 3,000 copies! They quickly changed that after the earthquake, so in the end the book - at least as of last month - have sold 12,000 English copies and 40,000 Japanese copies. And for a hardcover book, that's thick and heavy, about Japan, is something that we certainly would not have been able to do before March 11.

AT: And Matt, your books on Japanese pop culture offer rare insight. How does contemporary culture preserve Japanese mythology or cultural history, and does Japanese tradition help modern Japanese cope with present-day realities?

Matt: I don't know whether the Japanese people turn to tradition necessarily to help them through a situation such as the 3/11 disaster, but there's absolutely no question that many of the trends in Japanese culture today have roots that can clearly be traced back many millennia. Just to bring the conversation back to what we were discussing before, Japan is known for character creation, and for me when Hiroko and I investigated this in the course of writing our books, we realized that there's really a three-pronged equation as to why that is. First Japan has an animistic tradition. In times of old people believe souls exist in any object. It's a polytheistic belief system, animism. The second thing is Japan has a tradition of craftsmanship, especially in religious architecture. The third aspect of this is a storytelling tradition that goes back well over a thousand years. So if you take animism, craftsmanship, and this dramatic history and combine them together, you have the fuel to create characters. It's also why Japan is so good at doing that.

Elizabeth Shim joined as editor-blogger in 2011. AsianTalks' mission is to inspire our readers to discover the transformative potential of living, working, and thriving in the Asia-Pacific region. Created to fill an information void for forward thinkers about living and working in a cross-cultural environment, the blog places equal emphasis on the challenges and rewards of globalization. Visit our blog and subscribe to our newsletter today!

Source: EzineArticles
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