Despite challenges ranging from persistent deflation to a rapidly aging population, Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy by nominal GDP. In addition to boasting productive industry, active stock markets, and a booming tourism sector, the country provides a base of operations for some of the world’s largest corporations, both domestic and multinational.
It can, therefore, be tempting to assume that, as in other regional business hubs such as Hong Kong and Singapore, corporate messaging in Japan might adhere closely to global norms. This is not the case, however. And as befits an island nation with a history that includes over 200 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan’s unique language and culture have helped to shape a communications ecosystem quite unlike any other. What this means for PR practitioners is that interactions with stakeholders—including clients, consumers, regulators, investors, and the general public—are fraught with surprises and numerous potential pitfalls.
The six tips below, taken from Communicating: A Guide to PR in Japan, serve as a starting point for what to keep in mind when conducting PR in Japan.
Adapt, don’t translate
Though English may be recognized the world over as the lingua franca of corporate communications, it is unwise to presume that materials produced for use in other markets will fulfill their purpose effectively in Japan without extensive adaptation. Whether seeking to address clients, partners, consumers, the media, or even your local workforce, this rule applies not only to the language itself but also to factors like the format, tone, and even quantity of your communications. Demonstrating a commitment to engaging with Japanese stakeholders on their own terms can go a long way towards building trust and understanding.
Know your messenger
As one might expect, fundamentally Japan possesses the same array of traditional media as any other developed economy, but scratch below the surface, and there are many significant differences. Commercial TV networks and some of the world’s biggest-selling newspapers are controlled by a handful of huge media conglomerates, each with a diverse portfolio of interests. Comics are as widely read by adults as by children, while cable and satellite TV offer only limited reach. One of the true titans of the first wave of global internet expansion, locally Yahoo remains a major player among the targeted news aggregator sites cashing in on the continuing smartphone revolution. But however you choose to get your message out, there are numerous local factors to contend with, from regular staff rotations, to an extreme focus on content generated in Tokyo and Osaka, and, of course, Japan’s mysterious press club system.
Leading the social media LINE
For decades, Japan has been home to one of the world’s most vibrant blogospheres, and this longstanding familiarity with online communication underpins the nation’s embrace of social media. And while several once-dominant indigenous services may have lost ground in recent years to the big global networks, with over 70 million active users, it is social messaging app LINE that stands at the head of the crowd. Elsewhere, while YouTube and Instagram continue to grow as the platforms of choice for a new generation of influencers, Facebook has emerged as a tool for professional and B-to-B promotion analogous to the niche that LinkedIn occupies in many other regions.
The cuteness factor
From classic video games to manga and anime, Japan is renowned as a global capital of cute. Many organizations leverage the strong love of kawaii among local consumers of all ages through the use of adorable characters and mascots. One prominent trend is the creation of endearingly zany yuru kyara (literally “loose characters,” where the “loose” refers to often deliberately off-kilter design). Another common tactic with roots in Japan’s underground otaku geek culture is the use of doe-eyed anime-style moe characters to bring a hint of approachability. Incredibly, recent years have seen both styles of mascot deployed to soften the image of no less an institution than the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Even luxury brands sometimes conduct promotional campaigns using charmingly imperfect characters that may at first glance seem rather at odds with the sophisticated image that they have worked for decades to establish.
In many countries around the world, a culture of litigation means that organizations see a direct apology as tantamount to an admission of culpability, and as such a last resort. In Japan, by contrast, the absolute first step in the event of any corporate crisis or scandal is to organize a shazai kaiken, a special press conference at which a full and frank apology is given. Even if an organization does not feel itself to be at fault, contrition will be displayed simply for having caused a stir. Participants will typically undergo intensive coaching on every aspect of the process—from what to wear to how to stand, where to look and even the precise angle at which to bow to the assembled media representatives—as even minor slip ups will be raked over by press and public alike as potential signs of insincerity.
Join our club
One unique feature of journalism in Japan is the prominence of kisha kurabu, or press clubs. While Western newspapers give reporters a “beat,” or a specialty on which to focus, Japan’s traditional media powerhouses assign their staff to one of the hundreds of press clubs attached to the country’s major institutional news sources, from industrial associations to political parties, large corporations, and national and local government departments. Generally speaking, these groups, which are designed to control the flow of information, are dominated by reporters from the major media groups, with freelancers and writers for trade and smaller publications typically limited to obtaining their news through Japan’s major news agencies, Kyodo and JiJi. Though this system is by no means unique to Japan, the number of clubs and the power they wield are unparalleled, which makes understanding this complex arrangement a must for PR practitioners.
For more advice on PR Japan-style, check out: Communicating: A Guide to PR in Japan