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By: Debbie Howard




Regardless of your side of the political fence, there is no doubt that this recent election sent a clear sign that Japanese people were no longer willing to accept what the entrenched system was providing.

A simple thrashing would have been one thing, but the sheer scale of the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ’s) victory was breathtaking. Its appeal to provide an open and accountable government — while yet to be proven — seemed to strike a chord with voters who had otherwise grown frustrated with the old ways of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

While voter turnout compared to previous elections was relatively high at 69%, what was most interesting was voter turnout by age group. On average, it was not significantly different from that of past elections, with the highest turnout among those aged in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Support for the DPJ was strong across all age groups, including those of middle to older age, many of whom had traditionally supported the LDP.

In addition, the percentage of lower house seats held by females continued to rise, having been on an upward trend since 1996; the percentage of upper house seats held by females has been approximately 20% since 2007.

As a consumer trends forecaster, I can’t help but wonder about what we can learn from this election in terms of how much Japanese consumer attitudes have evolved over the years.

I’ve pointed out in the past that today’s Japanese consumer has become more highly segmented, with more diverse ideas and lifestyles apparent. Yet many Westerners still hold the belief that Japanese consumers are homogenous, that they are followers, that Japanese traditions are immutable.

The fact is that throughout the economic dead zone of the 90s, and onward through the sputtering economic recovery since 2004, Japanese consumers have been forced to adapt to a new reality, having faced a number of dramatic psyche changing events. For example, with the end of lifetime employment — as well as a prolonged high unemployment rate — many people have had to find new ways to make a living, including part-time jobs and entrepreneurial activity.

Japanese consumers have adapted admirably and continue to do so. As a result, a very different type of consumer has emerged: one that is more self-responsible, more independent and even more individualistic. At the same time, these changes are manifesting themselves in a more confident, more demanding and more fickle consumer.

Regardless of nationality, consumers typically deliberate more over large-scale purchases of items such as cars, compared to say, laundry detergent. This most recent election could be likened to a large-scale purchase in that it was, after all, an important election held in troubled economic times. Yet even with presumably higher stakes and greater deliberation, the electorate chose to “throw out the old” and “give the new and unproven a chance.”

In this recent election, we saw an en masse rejection of the status quo. Some may say that Japanese voters simply wanted a change — and that if the DPJ regime can’t deliver, then they’ll just vote against them next time. That may very well be true . . . and at the same time, it is even more of an example of how the Japanese mindset has perhaps been altered forever from one of “going with the flow.” Companies should be wary, since if they don’t deliver, they might be dropped just as easily as the LDP was.

Debbie Howard is Chairman of CarterJMRN and President Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 28th September 2009

CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.

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