OPINION22 October 2018

Data from the front line – research in Japan

Asia Pacific Opinion Trends

The Japanese concept of mentsu, the public self-image a person identifies with, brings a high degree of perfectionism that’s important to understand for those conducting or commissioning research in the country.

Tokyo at night

Japan is renowned for being expensive. A round of beers in a Japanese bar would, for some Westerners, represent an entire weekly food budget, while a trip on the famous shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train) may seem a luxury akin to business class travel. Research in the region is certainly no exception. Even quotes for researching simple audiences come back with sky-high CPIs, that a western researcher could easily deem exorbitant.

Of course, this is partly due to the natural expense of the region. When a face-to-face project requires multiple expensive features – a hired facility, technology, air conditioning and food – it is understandable that costs might ratchet up quickly. But the reason for the high prices goes deeper than just Japan’s inherent costliness.

One of those reasons is the Japanese concept of mentsu (face – the public self-image that a person identifies with). Mentsu naturally brings with it a high degree of perfectionism, especially when it comes to professional work; mistakes, no matter how small, are simply not tolerated in Japanese culture and workplaces – by the individual as much as any superior hierarchy.

This intolerance to errors increases self-awareness levels; the Japanese examine themselves thoroughly, so they can take steps to prevent others from highlighting their flaws. Maintaining this level of perfectionism leads to researchers feeling compelled to spend extra time triple and quadruple checking their work, and this additional time is charged back to clients.

Mentsu also means that the Japanese view requoting the cost of a project as an embarrassment. They believe that requoting could cause conflict with a client (and consequent perceived humiliation for themselves) and they therefore tend to cover any potential fee rises in the initial quote in order to avoid any uncomfortable situations later. Likewise, the Japanese are eager to eradicate any language barriers. It is common for them to hire interpreters and pay for translations to compensate for their English language skills, which are often (but certainly not always!) limited, due to a relatively homogenous society that has experienced little external influence historically.

However, market research in Japan has been transformed by the emergence of online research. While other Asian markets have been incompatible with this method, preferring more personal, face-to-face techniques, Japanese culture is perfectly suited to this more arms-length approach, especially when it comes to researching conventional, mainstream audiences. Online research means that Japanese consumers don’t have to personally interact with flesh-and-blood researchers to complete surveys; a factor that circumvents the Japanese antipathy towards personal interactions with strangers. The idea of sharing personal information makes them deeply uncomfortable and extends to a desire to avoid picking up phone calls from unknown numbers, which means telephone research in Japan is difficult to execute, too.

On the other hand, online research methods remove human interaction from the research process, encouraging participation from respondents who may not enjoy the process of a face-to-face interview or focus group. Respondents can relax without the pressures of sharing directly with another individual and are more likely to give honest and detailed responses when giving answers at their own leisure.

Likewise, online research methods provide a sense of control to the respondent. Unlike in a face-to-face interview, every question in an online survey is predetermined, and while this impacts the level of insight a researcher can reach, it provides a safer environment for respondents who are concerned that the spontaneity of a ‘live’ interview may lead them to revealing too much information, or at least a feeling of great social awkwardness.

What’s more, Japanese infrastructure lends itself to online research. Commute times into Tokyo and other major cities like Osaka and Nagoya are typically an hour in duration, which means that many Japanese have at least two hours each day of ‘dead time’. And, with incentives provided to all who take part, online research is arguably one of the best ways to monetise this time. With high quality 3G and 4G networks in existence for years now, this has allowed online research to flourish during the commute.

So, while researchers in Japan must work hard to maintain their ‘face’, research participants remain happy to hide theirs behind the safety of their computer or keitai (mobile phone) screens. Although face-to-face research benefits researchers elsewhere by creating a personal relationship with respondents and opportunities for spontaneous questions that lead to deeper insights, these advantages are entirely negated for researchers in Japan. Western researchers are often surprised by the dominance of online research in Japan, but its capabilities to reach huge numbers of respondents quickly, cheaply and comfortably mean that it is by far the best option for gaining accurate, primary quantitative data.

Greg Clayton is managing director of Kadence International

1 Comment

6 years ago

Great post, Greg. The concept of mentsu is understandable with respect to the way of working of agencies in Japan. A growing view in Japan, among the end-users of research is how reliable the data from surveys are, given the cultural nuances of hon-ne and tatemae. Typically (whether the survey administered is online or not) Japanese respondents tend not to be direct about their, say, opinion on a product/service. This, is seen as a tatemae (as opposed to hon-ne) and therefore more weightage is called for indirect, behavioural data collecion methods.

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