Japan - conflicting opinions
Anime, ikebana, karate, sushi ... Japan holds many fascinations. Most, if not all of us, own something Japanese, whether it be electronics or cars. But what do we really think about Japanese products and business?
The answer seems to be that most people do not think much about Japanese business at all. Not that they are negative; they just have no concrete image.
Media coverage of Japanese business in the UK is unusual and normally follows problems, disasters or scandals. The most recent terrible tsunami and Fukushima catastrophes are still, rightly, seared on most people's minds.
Normally, Japanese companies in Europe shy away from dealing with the media out of fear and distrust or, more charitably, some would say, a lack of knowledge and experience.
RDPI carried out a simple survey to get a snapshot of UK attitudes to Japanese business and products. The results, whilst not statistically significant, are interesting and will also be compared on another occasion with a similar survey carried out in Japan.
A small group (73) was polled, of which a third (24 = 34%) had some or a lot of experience of dealing with Japan ('experienced') and the remainder (49 = 66%) had none ('inexperienced'). Whilst there were some similarities between the two sub-groups, there were also some important differences.
The first question asked for opinions on the three most important characteristics of Japanese products. All responses were 'free text' (ie. no 'prompts' of any kind were offered).
Not surprisingly, quality was the most cited characteristic (by 69% of all respondents). This was followed by design (51%), innovation (51%) and reliability (47%). Value-for-money was also mentioned by over a third (39%).
Interestingly, 'experienced' and 'inexperienced' people (those having worked with Japan at least to some extent and those with no experience respectively) chose quality as one of their three descriptors, but the latter group also had some negative comments.
A lack of originality in design ('adopt and adapt' or just plain 'copy') was highlighted by over a third of this group. A surprising comment by a small number was that many of the public are unaware of the true origin of some products, confusing those made in Japan with those manufactured by 'competitor' nations. A comment by one respondent summarised some points made by several of the 'experienced', "Japan is lost in its own competitive advantage" and not investing in promotion of the country, its business and its products. In other words, living off its reputation; a dangerous game with the current world economic situation and fierce competition.
The second question was, in some ways, more revealing and asked for the three most important characteristics of Japanese business. The responses were grouped under several headings.
The three most significant positive characteristics were 'quality and reliability' (mentioned by 60% of respondents), 'efficiency' (by 56%) and 'honourable' (by 47%).
The two most significant negative comments fell under 'difficult and introvert' (mentioned by 47%) and 'hierarchical and dominated by rules' (by 43%). Interestingly, these negative comments were mostly mentioned by respondents experienced in dealing with Japan.
Scores for 'innovative' balanced equally between the positive and negative (13%) and such things as 'customer service' and 'value for money' were also mentioned. A small number mentioned 'slow and poor at decision making' whereas some 10% mentioned that Japanese companies are 'disciplined'. Once again, the negative comments came mostly from those having dealt with Japanese businesses.
Not all respondents elected to comment on how they saw the future for Japan. However, of the 80% that did, there was a similar division between those who have done business with Japan and those that have not.
Amongst the 'inexperienced', views were generally positive and, where not, reflected the recent problems as a huge challenge, particularly set against the world economic situation. One comment reflects this well, "... Japan is facing a slow and difficult recovery, but the people are resilient, work hard and are determined in the face of adversity". Of this group, around a third (32%) was overtly positive, even though views were sometimes tempered with comments such as, "have some problems, but looking good".
Views amongst the 'experienced' respondents were somewhat different. None was anywhere near completely negative and most referred to the extreme challenges faced by Japan as exactly that: challenges. The main ones cited are worthy of brief comment:
Japan does not have a bad image. If anything, it just does not have a 'public image' with the general UK population. As we have seen above, Japan's products and services are all very well regarded, but Japan generally only appears in the UK media when something bad happens. As already mentioned, the tsunami and Fukushima are examples, as are the recent personnel change at Olympus and car recalls. The latter gave the media and competition a 'field day' where 'far too little, far too late' led to disaster being pulled from the teeth of what should only have been a difficult, but manageable situation. With increasing world competition, Japan can no longer afford to maintain a low profile and live on its reputation if it wishes to regain its market lead and emerge positively from the current situation. One comment summarises this well, "Japan is losing to the Tiger economies" and has to do something drastic and swiftly to reverse this trend.
Views on this are very odd. Those who are not familiar with Japanese business regard it as a source of innovative ideas and products of the highest quality and reliability. These are the majority, whereas the minority (who know Japan) see it as being bogged down in a "risk-averse business culture" with a "lack of individualism" that "stifles flexibility" and "discourages original thinking".
China is rapidly becoming 'the next Japan'. Along with other near neighbours, industrial growth, innovation, increasing quality and cheaper production mean that Japan is at a critical crossroads and the traditional "modest and polite attitudes" will result in the situation getting worse unless something is done.
Despite the recent catastrophes and the economic situation, Japan has an important portfolio of enviable strengths on which it can build and re-gain its pre-eminent position. The Japanese government has the right idea - become more international, more open, more transparent and bring in new ideas and ways of working. These, however, should not stifle or displace Japan's positive, traditional characteristics.
In the best of Japanese traditions, new ideas and ways of working can be 'adopted and adapted', but only if attitudes change fairly radically and new ideas and concepts are embraced.
The future for Japan can be extremely positive, but only if Japan makes some changes and takes the right path.
For further information, please visit: www.rdpi.co.uk