Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Dominic Carter

On many levels, Japan appears to ignore key elements of what westerners consider to comprise social modernity. One classic example is the profound lack of progress women have made in gaining meaningful roles in management. In this area, to name only one, Japan seems to trail other countries by decades.

However, the levels of receptivity to change in the population are much higher than one might think. Earlier this year we surveyed a representative sample of Japanese aged 16-69, asking their opinions on a set of around 60 statements covering a wide set of attitudes and values. The result is a treasure trove of data on societal values that we will write much more about in the months to come.

In the meantime, the top 10 attributes that Japanese endorse are a great snapshot of where we are ‘at’ in 2021. And they are, on the whole, surprisingly progressive. The data shown here are net agreement scores, whereby we subtract the % of the sample disagreeing with a statement from the % that agree. The higher the score, the more likely the view is both widely held and not particularly polarised. The range of net agreement scores in our survey ranged from 60 to 9.

“People should be accountable for their actions” 60%

It is hard to underestimate just how important the concept of personal responsibility is for Japanese. Those of us who live and work here see many examples of heroic commitment, at both the workplace and family levels. Where this dynamic can tend to fail society is when people expect others to take the same level of responsibility that they do for themselves – leading to the very strong belief that things are ‘taken care of’. So even when there is evidence to the contrary, big business and government are trusted to behave ethically and responsibly.

“Domestic violence is a topic that should be tackled head on” 54%

This is a strong indication that women’s issues are heading more to the fore of the social conversation. While views can still vary on women’s role in the workforce, it is now widely viewed as completely unacceptable that women should suffer a subservient and vulnerable role at home. This may sound like old news, but in fact the mere visibility and acknowledgement of the issue is a sign of movement. The mega-trend of the changing role of women represents a major force for change, and women will inevitably become progressively more powerful in Japanese society.

“Workers need protection from unscrupulous employers” 54%

“ I support a flexible workplace in Japan” 49%

“In general the level of wages needs to rise” 47%

The changing world of work is another key mega-trend that has been turbocharged by the prolonged pandemic. Falling workforce numbers are giving employees much more power than in the past; employers will increasingly be forced to provide better pay and benefits. Wages are currently seen as being too low – not only by employees but also by the government. For the professional, administrative, creative and managerial classes, working from home will continue to be part of the work repertoire. As in the rest of the world, employers failing to recognise this will not attract the best talent.

One particularly interesting anomaly is the relatively low net agreement on the point (“The most qualified person should always get the job 16%”). This possibly speaks to very ingrained attitudes to how and why progress happens within organisations – most probably age-based seniority.

“The challenge of climate change is one of the most important that we face as a planet” 48%

There is high awareness and concern about climate change in Japan. The image of Japanese as being indifferent to the environment is an increasingly outdated one. Indeed sustainability and the environment is showing signs of emergence as a genuine megatrend.

Nevertheless, people lack confidence in their personal ability to affect positive change. Organisations and brands that wish to leverage high levels of concern need to deeply think about ways to break the problem down into smaller, addressable actions. My Mizu, a recent start-up that provides a refilling service for water bottles at a range of locations across Tokyo is a great example of how to do this well.

“The government and business should do what is right for society rather than what is expedient” 47%

Notwithstanding the already-mentioned high levels of trust, people are firm in their conviction that the powers that be should look after the common good. The recent decision to hold the Olympics in Tokyo is one that is generally seen to fly in the face of this unwritten social contract. Watch this space as to how that plays out.

“Japan is in danger of being exploited by outside forces” 46%

This may be an obvious factual statement for many – Japan’s history shows the risks of a troubled geopolitical environment, one which we are increasingly facing. However, there is quite a high degree of discomfort around another of Japan’s mega-trends, that of internationalisation. Coupled with this result we only saw net agreement of 9% for the statement “I am happy to see more foreigners living permanently in Japan”. The path to internationalisation is going to be long and difficult, but one that is demographically inevitable. People not born in Japan will live here in much greater numbers in the future because even with a revolution in robotics and productivity, Japan will not have the workforce to meet its needs.

“Society needs to have more respect for the individual” 46%

In the question of balance between individual vs. society, it has always been a given that Japan leans towards society. This may, however, be far less the case than foreigners think. Certainly, elements of Japan’s progressiveness involve more freedom to think and make decisions on one’s own. Greater demands for ‘me’ and ‘my’ priorities will play out strongly in the role of women as well as in the world of work. Japan will gradually resemble other advanced nations in terms of the consideration given to the individual.

“Innovation is the key need to keep society afloat” 45%

While not a panacea, innovation will assist Japan in facing many of its challenges. Not least is the ageing of society, which is inextricably interwoven with the mega-trend of generational dynamics. Innovations such as robotics and autonomous cars promise to make ageing in place and elements of maintaining normal life much more feasible than today, but in order to meet the challenges of the country, innovations will need to be social as well as technical.

The progressive dimensions endorsed by many in our survey give us a somewhat positive view of society’s readiness to change to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There are speedbumps implied in our survey, such as Japan’s relatively defensive attitude to internationalisation and its traditional work culture. Nonetheless the nation continues its positive movement on these points, albeit on its own terms. This slower pace of change, on balance, is seen by most Japanese as being for the best.

Dominic Carter Bio
Dominic Carter

Representative Director & CEO

A double major graduate in marketing and Japanese studies from the University of New South Wales, Dominic came to Japan from Australia in the late 90’s to launch and develop the Japan business of a major global research company. His career highlights include being local managing director for a top ten global research agency, founding his own business in Japan and helping some of the largest brands in the world use research to influence real improvements in their Japanese business performance.