Characteristics of Japanese People

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  Japan has been controlled by an autocratic government for a long period of time. Japan became a democratic state relatively recently with its defeat in the Pacific War in 1945.
The Japanese had to equip themselves to survive in those autocratic times and it still underlies current society and their unique characteristics.

Factors informing this unique Japanese characteristics are:

  1. They adapted to catering to authority and to harmonize with others.
  1. They tend to place themselves in their own exclusive and closed communities. Accordingly, they have introverted personalities and they pay serious attention to harmony and cooperativeness in the group. They feel comfortable with familiar people in the communities they belong to. They developed their sense of allegiance in the group consequent to be exclusive. The behavior of competition and appealing themselves is observed only within their own community. On the other hand, they are enthusiastic in absorbing or imitating other cultures.
  1. Consequently, they have more interest in human feelings and emotions than scientific or logical concerns. In terms of book read, literary books rate more highly than scientific books, comparied with westerners.
  1. Japan has a population of about half of the United States with a land area about 90% of the state of California. Therefore, roads, parks, houses, etc. are designed in miniature size. This environment influences largely their lives. They tend to pay attention to precise details rather than the big picture. They are better at developping transistors than space development projects. Mini-component audio systems are essential in their narrow houses often referred to "rabbit hutches".
  1. Japan is a country poor in natural resources but rich in hard-working and diligent people.

Followings are some examples of their characteristics.

In personal life:
  1. Japanese culture is group oriented and people tend to work together rather than exert their individuality.
    Expressing strong personal opinions is not common as in western countries. Modesty is the prevailing attitude. When making purchases, they select reputable merchandise according to community standards rather than personal preferences or even coordination to own style. They prefer conservative merchandise rather than gaudy and appealing one. In the case of high-priced merchandise, they prefer the one to appeal their own status than the performance or design.
  1. Japanese people tend to accomodate others' opinions rather than speak up for themselves. They attach much importance to harmony.
    In discussions, Westerners clearly express their own opinions and speak directly in order to avoid confusion. On the other hand, Japanese people do not speak directly on the understanding that it is polite not to be direct. Expressing a contrary opinion would imply disrespect of the other person. This is why it is said that Japanese people don't say "no".
    Japanese usage of "Yes" and "No" is opposite to English. Japanese people often speak English with Japanese grammar. When they answer a negative question such as "Don't you think so?" and they don't think so, the concept of Japanese grammar is such that they answer "Yes, I don't think so".
  1. Japanese people tend to have a group, rather than individual mentality. For example, when making travel plans they tend to select from the travel packages offered by travel agencies. When shopping, they attach great importance to the opinions of salesmen, colleagues or friends rather than deciding by themselves. Therefore, it is very important for sales people to be recognized as friendly and reliable advisors.
  1. When selecting purchases, the Japanese tend to attach more importance to the reputation of the item among the community they belong to, such as colleagues, friends, neighbors than to the performance of the goods or how well they suit their lifestyle. Thus, penetration of all communities is important for successful marketing in Japan.
  1. Japanese people tend to attach more importance to the law and regulations than to their own judgment. For example, when a mother warns her child not to walk on a lawn, Western mothers would say "Do not walk on a lawn because you will damage the lawn". On the other hand, Japanese mothers tend to say "Do not walk on the lawn because it is prohibited." or "because you'll be scolded. We often hear Japanese politicians saying "According to the law.........".
    The Japanese trial system is not a jury system. A judge makes the decision according to the law.

    People were not allowed to criticize authority during feudal warrior times. This consciousness still underlies the characteristics of the Japanese people and they tend to instinctively obey authority.

    As Japanese people have lived under dictatorship for such a long period of time, their culture is called "the culture of sadness". Most old Japanese folk songs and current "Enka" music as well, have lyrics of sadness, with the melody written in minor scales.

  1. Japanese people tend to attach more importance to the precise finish of a product rather than to overall performance of the goods. This is applicable to many products, such as clothes, automobiles, electronic products, houses, etc.

    Clicking on Episodes of how Japanese people attach importance to the precise finish of the products provides some illustrations of this.

    It is believed that this Japanese characteristics has come about as a result of overpopulation. Their houses are narrow and often referred to as "rabbit hutches".
    Accordingly, they are excellent at precision work, such as electronics. Development of transistors was the trigger for Sony to be current major organization. Nikon is the top manufacturer of Stopper Lenses which are essential for the production of Super LSI. They have succeeded in achieving the highest precision in the world of 0.08 microns and are now aiming at reaching to 0.01microns.
  1. When Japanese people buy something, it is either for practical use or for status. The merchandise they buy is at the lowest or the highest ends of the price range, and intermediate-priced merchandise is not acceptable. Currently, this trend is expanding. The reason that Yanase, the exclusive importers of General Motors and Mercedes recently dropped Buick from their list seems to be that it is not a prestedge car (highest end). On the other hand, One Hundred Yen shops recently appeared as a new and successful retailer concept and they are growing in size, quantity and popularity.

    Currently, this phenomenon is expanding to create new concept of "Two extreme price market segmentation".
On business:
  1. Japanese people tend to accomodate others' opinions rather than speak up for themselves. They attach much importance to harmony. Corporate policies are preaching the the importance of harmony.
  1. Many corporate systems are structured for cooperative employee performance. An employee submits an application for approval, for such things as a new plan, business trip or purchase (called "Ringisho") to the chief who passes it along to a higher level where it is again passed up the chain of command. If the application is approved, it is sent to accounting section, and then to purchasing section where the order is placed. In this way, responsibility is shared by many people. This system seems very inefficient, however, once the decision is made, the subject is performed in whole organization scale as a company mission.
  1. Japanese manufacturers cut their production costs by using sub-contractor grouping system. In the 1880s, Japanese automobile manufacturers reduced their costs by adopting a procurement method called "Kanban Hoshiki (Price and delivery control system by grouping sub-contractors)" and swept over the U.S. market. In 1990s, the U.S. automobile manufacturers developed the Information Technology to fight back. This is an example of the differences of attitudes between Japan and the United States that Japanese people attach importance to forming a group while Westerners attach importance to a technology (science).
  1. Companies also form nationwide group. This is called "Goso Sendan Houshiki (Armed Convoy System). The flagship is the Japanese Government. Companies are transport ships and ministries are the warships to protect and support the transport ships which carry the economy. Private companies are therefore highly regulated by the government.
    For example, recently the mayor of Osaka prefecture required the federal government's support to reduce the landing fee at Osaka International Airport which is under non-government management.
  1. In feudal times, a lord who owned his castle governed his territory by his own law, with warriors working under him. Members of the general public was at the lowest status. This concept still underlies current Japanese society. A company is the castle, administrative employees are the warriors and clerks are the general public. Employees have strong feelings that they are owned by their company and should to pledge their loyalty to the company. Changing jobs is regarded as disloyalty and is a disadvantage for the next employment opportunity. As more importance is attached to a group than to an individual, a company has more financial confidence than an individual. There are many cases of companies or organizations accepting business accounts only for companies. The U.S. domain name, com. is available for both companies and individuals, but the Japanese domain name, is available for companies only.
  1. Lifetime employment:
    The Japanese employment system has traditionally been operated as lifetime employment. Changing jobs is regarded as a lack of allegiance to the company and is dis-advantageously evaluated by next employer.
  1. In most Japanese companies, white-collar executives account for a higher percentage than executives come from technical field comparing with Western companies. Most of the member of Japanese national assembly are graduates of law schools.
  1. In Japanese organizations, as in homes, hosts invite their guests to take superior seats. It is supposed that this custom has been passed down from feudal times.
  1. Within Japanese organizations, when speaking of other employees, the person's name is said without an honorific title even for high ranking employees. This comes from a strong group consciousness that every employee of a company belongs to the company and is a part of the company, and people are categorized as insiders or outsiders.

School education from primary school to undergraduate university is comprised of teachers lecturing from a platform and students taking notes. Students are evaluated solely by exam results, which test memorization of the lecture materials. There is no debate system simulating actual social interaction as observed in Western countries.
Students from primary school to senior high school wear uniforms.
Schools are hard to enter and easy to graduate from.

This system has been unchanged since the Meiji era (1867).
The purpose and the effect of this education system is to make the students adapt well in organizational structure such as companies, institutions, and governmental offices as a part of the organization, and does not to aim to develop creative intelligence.
It can be compared to manufacturing a computer with a large data memory space but poor signal processor performance.

This system was adopted when Japan was governed by a despotic government and it was deemed necessary for the people to faithfully obey the government's orders.
The fact that this system still remains shows how slowly Japanese people change their characteristics although it is gradually changing.

The Japanese characteristics are deeply related to the history of Japan. It is gradually changing but still underlies in daily life. It is useful to refer to Japanese history for an overall understanding of the Japanese characteristics.

Clicking on Historical analysis on the Japanese characteristics by Tsunetoshi Terada, the founder of Intelligence Bridges, provides a basic analysis of Japanese history related to the development of this unique characteristics.