Also relevant to the preceding topic of Principles and Practices of Business in Japan, the following additional comments about doing business in Japan can be categorised as local conditions.
1. The ageing population
When contemplating product types that have the potential for acceptance in Japan, it’s worthwhile looking both to internal social pressures in Japan and current worldwide trends. As noted earlier, one issue currently of critical importance in Japan, and increasingly into the future, is the ageing of the population. The present fertility rate, of around 1.2 children on average born to each woman, is well below that required to maintain the current population levels. Life expectancy is longer than in any other country, so clearly products and services suited to the elderly will increase in demand.
With the decline in population that has already commenced, the demand for women to re-enter the workforce will increase. Such women may well seek ways of reducing the time they have to spend doing housework. As in the West, this will increase demand for instant meals and all other labor-saving household products.
2. Social and product trends
Although Japan’s economy is inter-locked with that of the West, particularly America, social and product trends that pass through the West don’t necessarily always achieve the same penetration in Japan. It may be that Japan is behind the West, affected by homegrown issues. Nevertheless, if a product or activity has caught on in the West, there’s a good chance it can also do so in Japan, when the time is right.
One example is products designed to appear and be environmentally friendly, which were initially slow to gain acceptance. In the same vein are organic and preservative-free products, which are also now being sought after by an increasing percentage of housewives. Indicative of this being an emerging market, most supermarket chains now offer some fresh and packaged products in this category, and they’re constantly seeking imports. Parts of Japan have an excellent grocery and fresh food home delivery service, all products chemical and preservative free. These claims are checked and verified by teams of volunteer housewives, who regularly visit suppliers to ensure they’re abiding by the company’s standards. Such companies also offer an opportunity for this kind of food import.
The changing of the seasons has a big impact on commercial activity in Japan. There are four clearly defined seasons, five if the rainy season wedged in between spring and summer is included, and six if the period of typhoons in late summer is considered as a separate season.
The seasons come and go at the same time each year, with weather conditions within a particular season almost completely the same year after year. There is no merging of seasons, they start and finish in a clear and definite manner. Also, the kind of weather experienced within each season is entirely different, although the two shoulder seasons, spring and autumn have similarities. Summers are hot and humid, more so in the southern regions, winters are cold and dry, more so in the northern regions.
This changing of the seasons has implications for the design of clothing, for food and drink, electrical goods and other items. It affects packaging; and many aspects of manufacturing and marketing. For example:
- stock on display in any clothing store will all be suited to that season only, and will completely change overnight for the start of the next season.
- drinks in the ubiquitous vending machines are hot in winter, cold in summer.
- in stores selling electrical goods, there is a heavy emphasis on air conditioners in summer, and heaters in winter.
- even furnishing in homes, plus rugs, slippers and sofa covers, are changed from summer to winter.
People rarely consider purchasing goods off-season, even at a discount. Production in many industry sectors is heavily geared to the seasons.
A subject for which Japan has an international reputation, both in relation to the size of items purchased and their presentation. Whilst there is a growing awareness of environmental issues in relation to packaging, Japan is well behind the West in this regard. Old habits of excessive wrapping and packaging, especially for gift purposes, take a long time to die out.
For most purchases, the condition of the packaging must be as perfect as the product itself. In many countries, if a product’s packaging has a scratch most purchasers probably wouldn’t be bothered, so long as they know the product is unmarked and unaffected. In Japan, if either the packaging or the product has a scratch or any kind of blemish it will be rejected. Also, the appearance and presentation of the package must be of a high standard and suit the Japanese taste and style. The presentation of goods, colours and typography used on domestically produced packaging is often unique to Japan.
In the case of imported goods, apart from any legally required packaging changes, such as the contents being noted in Japanese on the label, it’s common for the original packaging to be retained, although the most popular size or sizes for the Japanese market might be in the smaller range only.