2016-Year of the Monkey in Japan: Symbols and Superstitions-Kit Kats and Red Underwear!

for December, 2015

2016-Year of the Monkey in Japan: Symbols and Superstitions-Kit Kats and Red Underwear!

Posted on 16 December 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Market Insight -

I was fascinated to read about how in 1966, the year of the fire horse, which comes around every 60 years, the birth rate in Japan dropped dramatically as people did not want to have children, especially girls, with the characteristics associated with this zodiac sign (fiery, headstrong, rebellious and overall bad luck).

Although this speaks volumes about the attitude towards ideal character traits of females in Japan (another blog’s worth perhaps) it also gives a fascinating insight into the superstitions evident in Japan, which are very much part of its cultural landscape. Symbols, tradition and stories all form part of a culture, much as anywhere around the world. The Japanese zodiac is accepted in modern day society and naturally the world of commerce and retailers use it as a powerful selling tool.

Kit Kat, which has been an immense success story in Japan, due to its understanding of Japanese tastes and customs (gift giving, emphasis on regional produce etc) have joined up with Japan Post to sell their Otoshidama New Year’s Kit Kat gift box decorated with “kawaii” monkeys cosplaying as New Year rice balls, Gods of fortune or Maneki Cats (the ones that wave at you). Included is the otoshidama envelope (the monetary gift given to children to celebrate New Year’s in Japan). How many Japan specific cultural elements can you get on one product? Fantastic!

Several department stores are promoting lines of red underwear since red underwear is supposed to bring luck and keep out diseases in the Year of the Monkey. “Saru” as well as meaning monkey in Japan also as a verb means to “go away”. Apparently in the last year of the Monkey in 2004, red shorts for women sold five times more than usual! Japan Post will of course bring out a monkey decorated stamp for the New Year Cards that are sent all over Japan in the New Year.

Monkeys have a varied role in Japanese religious beliefs and folklore appearing as both trickster and sacred mediator. I have seen the cute yet mischievous macaques stealing from the local farmers or occupying hot springs and have also visited the famous shrines of Nikko to see the 3 wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) For me, I hope that the Year of the Monkey symbolises wisdom and skill in business negotiations & problem solving with a hint of mischief.

A Merry Christmas to everyone and may your Year of the Monkey be successful too.


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Japanese Stand-up Comedienne Wins Prize laughing at UK/Japan Idiosyncracies

Posted on 7 December 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, News -

It was refreshing and heart-warming to listen to the sketch of Japanese Stand-up Comedienne Yuriko Kotani, who recently won the 2015 BBC Radio New Comedy Award. As someone who has lived both in Japan and the UK, I found her sketch not only hilarious, but poignant. She cleverly contrasts the poor punctuality of the British train system and our attitudes towards it with Japan, subtly inferring that since Japanese society is so structured, the British obviously have more time to “mess about”. Signs declaring the comparatively woeful punctuality record of the trains would in Japanese society indeed be seen as an apology or, as she puts it a “confession.” Her take on the use of “ish” in our vocabulary is insightful. We use it to cover up shortcomings not only in the punctuality of transport but in our own more flexible attitude to time-keeping. These represent some of things that Japanese people living in the UK indeed find very different and in her case, mildly refreshing as she quotes, “I don’t want to live like a robot”. This is a sentiment shared by several longer-term Japanese residents here, who embrace the less structured side of society and enjoy the freedom that living outside of Japan brings.

However, it is not always easy moving outside of your cultural norms. Having worked with newly arrived Japanese ex-pats in the UK, facing certain British idiosyncracies in a business setting can cause problems ranging from annoyance, frustration, mis-comprehension, judgemental attitudes and in some cases, a complete rejection of a different culture. This is something I myself went through when living in Japan-bewilderment at why things were so different and no context of my own to compare it with. It is easy enough to become frustrated and cynical. Humour such as this is incredibly useful to break up these frustrations and promote understanding, which is an important part of successfully living in other cultures without going mad!

Through a simple 5 minute sketch, she shows two different cultural perspectives of everyday things as well as appealing to the British sense of humour through dry sarcasm and laughing at our own failings -I can’t wait to hear more from her! Listen at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p038n60h

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Improve Communications-Reduce Frustrations

Posted on 2 December 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Market Insight -

On a recent trip to Japan, I met with several companies who were out on relationship make-or-break missions to Japan. What was interesting about these companies was that they had successfully entered the Japanese market and have all been dealing with Japanese agents/customers for many years. They all had viable products/services and were relatively successful elsewhere in the world. On the surface, there was no reason why they shouldn’t be successful in Japan. However, Japan was proving a difficult market for them. These weren’t the only things they had in common. Other things included:

  • Frustration with what was happening regarding their communications with their agents.
  • Frustration at how their agents were acting regarding their products and the marketing/PR surrounding this.
  • Frustration at the lack of performance of their product in Japan as opposed to how they perceived it would perform.
  • Frustration at a perceived sense of lack of exclusivity for their products/services versus competitors.
  • Frustration with their efforts to communicate all of the above.

In a nutshell, massive frustrations caused by an under estimation of the leg-work, presence and patience needed for the Japanese market plus a lack of appreciation of how incredibly different the Japanese market still is concerning PR/Marketing, relationships with suppliers and customers and general communications. This is, in my opinion the most important thing for companies wanting to be successful in the Japanese market and yet is the most ignored aspect, until things start going wrong. I work with many companies who are losing thousands in potential revenue in Japan by not understanding their staff, the ways things work or are missing important cultural communicational cues as to why things are not happening according to their own expectations.

Now that market entry has been made much smoother, some markets are opening up and some are positively booming, people assume that “business is business” the whole world over and everyone will play by the same rules. Not always so in Japan. More to come on this in further blogs..

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