After 16 years away from Japan, I recently returned on business to Yokohama and Tokyo and the question everyone was asking is: has it changed a lot? My answer would be yes and no. No, because on the surface the same levels of politeness are still evident in the service industry including uniformed subway staff ushering everyone through the station and apologising to everyone about disruptions at the station, overly attentive service and packaging still very evident in department stores with store managers greeting shoppers upon the opening of stores and female lift attendants directing and helping people plus there is the same high level of convenience including ice-cream vending machines now! The “kawaii” culture is still influencing products and advertisements and some British companies have embraced this too (I will blog about this separately).
Yes things have changed in a sense of there being more altruistic activities: people on the streets campaigning about anti-nuclear, collecting for Tohoku and dogs for the blind. There was a lot more evidence of homelessness and poverty out in daily life. With all the talk of Abenomics, it was interesting to see whether any of his policies had caused visible changes. Let’s start with globalisation: English was used a lot more than when I was last there (polite notices on the subway asking people to use their manners, people trying it out with me) although still lots of senseless English around advertising Japanese products that I think we have to accept is a feature of their relationship with the English language and doesn’t seem to bother the target audience. Think Pocari Sweat and Vanilla Air as big name brands and you will see where I am coming from.
There was a lot more katakanisation of words (foreign words adapted into the Japanese language) and also lots more foreign faces dotted around although I still caused a group of High School boys to giggle nervously and say “hello” to me in Yokohama-nice ego boost for me admittedly.
Next up: Womenomics and child care issues. I spoke to a few women in Tokyo still struggling with this and finding it almost impossible to get places at their local state funded centre-one who wants to go back to work as a nurse has since got a place although the only option is full time. I also spoke to women about the stringent work hours expected and lack of flexible working hours within Japanese companies even for women with children and the Chairwoman of a governmental organisation said she had often come across counterparts asking her when the Chair was about to arrive, mistaking her for someone of lesser status. Encouragingly though, Nomura Bank has just appointed its first female head.
Emerging markets: I visited a Smart Week Expo (I will be writing on this for Cambridge Clean Tech next month) and there was certainly a massive interest in this area from all parts of the globe-Caroline Kennedy opened the Expo! I have never seen so many booths and prototypes of wind turbines!
All in all it was a positive re-affirmation of my love for Japan and confirmation that there are still many cultural differences but Japan is still resilient. Please feel free to contact me about this blog or any other aspect of doing business in Japan.