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Japanization vs. Globalization: can it fit together?

The secret to make a success on both sides.

I have recently torn my hair out hearing about LaMeche (fictious name), a rather high-end French professional hair care brand. They had just signed a distribution contract with a Japanese wholesaler for its distribution in the Japanese market. The usual presentation of LAMECHE, its history, philosophy and product portfolio, including the latest launched item, a killer, was provided to the operational marketing team. LAMECHE was eager to get back the sales strategy and detailed sales plan any time. A week passed. Few days later, the interface (madoguchi) within the distributor sends the following email:"Thank you for your presentation material. You refer to head massage while applying the treatment as one of the key element of your philosophy. Does it refer to a specific head massage technique? By who was it developed and when? Do you have any proof of the difference in results compared to a typical head massage? In the other hand, if it is not a specific massage technique, we will not mention it. Concerning the new product launch, can you please share with us the details of a success story in other markets?"

These lines were followed by a list of 10 other questions about raw material origins, if tests were conducted on animals or not… Finally, they were informing LAMECHE that a shipment lot of products was rejected because the label was not properly sticked on the recipients. Once checked, LAMECHE understood that the labels were slightly off-centered within the bottle (about 1 mm variation out of a 5 cm label). With 13 years of practice as an interface between European companies and the local Japanese operational teams, I would say that LAMECHE story is a pretty common pattern. Most international companies introducing new products in Japan do face three unsettling reactions:

  1. “Japan is different and things have to be done differently”

  2. Absence of enthusiasm along with an awful list of questions about insignificant details

  3. Highly diverging perception and expectancy about quality

However, by itself only, those topics shouldn’t raise worries about motivation or skills of your sales teams or business partners. Then how should these subjects be addressed or understood? And why usually worth the « pain »?

1 - You are global and still Japan is specific!

Following availability of global players products and services and democratization of travel across the globe, Digital age has further developed the concept of global markets and global consistency as a key requirement in branding strategy and operational efficiency. However, it is true that Japan remains very specific in many ways, at least as a very mature and discerning consumer market. And in that sense, some effort is required to check the relevance of your product / service and its differential positioning and advantage. For example, if we go back to LAMECHE’s case, any hair salon would head massage during treatment in Japan so LAMECHE’s accent on that philosophy is completely irrelevant in terms of service differentiation. Does this imply that local adjustment is incompatible with global strategy? Well, it depends where you position yourself to assess this matter. Do you perform it from your own point of view or from the perspective of your customer’s point of view? In the era of customer experience, it is worth, if not mandatory, to consider the second option. In other words, you shouldn’t change your global strategy, however you need to tune it so that the client perception in different markets is consistent.

The Japanese have always expected exceptional interpersonal service and their expertise in that field is a worldwide benchmark. Succeeding in Japan will lead you to improve your products& services and the effort you have deployed for the Japanese market, should be capitalized in other regions. As a matter of fact, Japan Is widely considered as a test market for multinationals in many industries, because of the sophistication of it’s customers and also because it is often considered as a benchmark across Asia. Tadashi Yanai, Chairman, president and CEO of the global success story brand UNIQLO, provides an excellent further extended illustration of that strategy: “Globalization means to go local. If we, an originally Japanese company, are to develop stores in the US, we must create products that American people would like. Furthermore, these products must sell well not only in the US, but all over the world. The same principle applies for all region”*.

2 - Japanese rationale is pragmatic

Japanese approach differs with French and many western cultures in the sense that it is much more practical than conceptual and ideas are developed progressively, and in detail, rather than with an initial overall picture. In that sense, details about the what’s, the how’s and the why’s are essential to their thinking process and their lack is usually associated to a overlooking and negligence. In that sense, being able to provide the details be forehead or in demand is crucial for establishing a trusting relationship with your local teams and business partners. This phase will actually enable them to plan implementation and you can capitalize on their pragmatic approach for your other markets. Further more, their questioning is rather a sign of implication and motivation rather than the opposite. Unfortunately, this aspect of relations and behavior is often misunderstood and results in frustration and motivation loss.

3 Japanese are perfecting perfectionism.

Defaults, even those having no influence on the usage or quality of the product, question the overall reliability of the product or service. Consequently, the impact on image is often judged more costly than rejecting the defective items. Moreover, the Japanese are optimization process minded (kaizen) and that philosophy is deeply rooted in their working behaviors: imperfections and defaults are systematically analyzed and corrective measures are taken to avoid the recurrence of the same defaults. Japanese makers themselves have a differentiating approach towards domestic and International markets. In the automotive field, a major Japanese automotive maker would operate the sewing finish of the car steering wheel manually while it is automated for all other markets. All makers in the automotive industry operate a 5layer root cause analysis (why?why?why?why?why?) at the occurrence of any defective item in order to solve the problem at the source. And these practices are not limited to Japanese companies: International companies who succeed in Japan have also implemented measures in order to satisfy the Japanese requirement in terms of Quality. For example, a famous French Luxury brand has implemented an Airport security metal detector checking process in it’s Japanese warehouse in order to avoid that a needle is left on cloths before it is shipped to stores. These requirements seem pretty extreme but in an era where an increasing number of customers value quality rather than consumer bulimia, Japan is also the place to be and learn.

As a conclusion, next time you face those reactions from your Japanese local teams or partners, consider it as a great opportunity to strengthen your relationship and mutual understanding, improve your products and services relevancy and quality and get an overview of excellent practical implementation.

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