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By Dominic Carter

Japanese are not as unengaged on the topic of sustainability as you might think

Over the past 10 to 15 years, Japanese marketers have wholeheartedly embraced the symbology of sustainability. Notions of ‘green’ and ‘eco’ and ‘human’ have proliferated in aesthetic terms. Yet signs of a sea change in consumer attitudes and behaviour have been slow to become apparent.

It has typically been a hard road for those who want to activate the Japanese market on issues and commercial enterprises related to the environment and sustainability. Nevertheless, the range of businesses and NPOs with ambitious, progressive goals is growing, and these organisations’ objectives in Japan can cover anything from fundraising, campaigning, or launching ethical consumer products.

There are, however, glimpses of hope that indicate that these organisations are not wasting their time. For example, 60% of respondents last year in our annual sentiment survey indicated they were refusing plastic bags at the cashier whenever possible. Initiatives like My Mizu, a PET bottle reduction program that sensibly focuses on incremental change in consumer behaviour, are starting to appear. Indeed, I have argued for a long time that on an issue such as climate change, the Japanese are not as unaware or as soft, on the subject as is generally thought.

If you want to change hearts and minds be careful to stay in rapport

There are several characteristics of approaches that are likely to engage successfully. Organisations and brands first need to build rapport and establish their credentials before anyone will listen. Importantly, in this most sceptical of cultures, those who wish to capture hearts and minds (and wallets) need to show evidence they can produce results against their stated organisational objectives. Talking loudly and using shock tactics is not the way to play it in this market. That causes people to fall out of rapport with you and possibly your issue as well. Disastrous publicity and aggressive imagery related to anti-whaling campaigning are easy for sceptics to cite when presented with anything remotely looking like undue pressure related to an environmental issue.

Nowadays, the term ‘green’ can have a residual, clichéd feeling. But being green (for lack of a better word) is about far more than just caring about the environment. It’s a values system that is all-encompassing and covers more than one’s reactions to a single topic. It’s a fundamentally progressive view of life and society and, arguably, is at odds with our notions of what many believe Japanese society, with its traditional characteristics, stands for. Given these values’ ‘alternative’ nature, can we say that there is an identifiable progressive segment in Japan?

Absolutely, yes, there is a significant ‘green’ segment in Japan.

At The Carter Group, we’ve tracked consumer sentiment in Japan every year since 2017. Beginning in 2021, we added over 60 questions covering everyday people’s values on issues such as personal confidence and security, the nation’s position in the world, how people feel about institutions and powers that be, the roles of science and tradition, well as the world of work and emergent social and environmental issues.

We apply a statistical method called cluster analysis to pull people who indicate similar values into separate groupings. Within these groups, members are more similar in their worldview to each other than they are to members of other groups.

The ‘Green Progressive’ segment’s size appears to comprise around 15% of the population aged 15-69.

Green Progressives in Japan think like Green Progressives in many other countries

These folks hold pretty much the values you would expect of a socially progressive citizen anywhere in the world. It’s important to point out that members of this segment are not the only people in society to hold progressive values; it’s just that the progressive elements feature particularly strongly in their values set. Let’s take a look at how their values look, relatively speaking, compared to the other segments.

They are about what’s doing right for society and the planet, and are generally collectivist in their outlook. Climate change, unsurprisingly, is a big concern for them, and they are dissatisfied with the current level of progress in addressing the issue. They believe fundamentally in inclusion and thus are much more likely than other segments to be welcoming of foreigners as residents living permanently in Japan. Indeed, they feel that racism is a problem in Japan.

They believe that too much individualism is bad for the country and instead support a more evolved workplace, including a more inclusive role for women. LGBT rights are important to them. They also firmly believe that domestic violence is a topic that should be tackled head-on.

They are not heavily supportive of science and what is seen as technological progress. Nor do they feel that ‘freedom’ is a value that has value in and of itself. They’re concerned with the gap between rich and poor. The language of a certain type of ‘progress’ that involves more free enterprise, free choice and dismantling social safety nets in favour of personal responsibility would find little support among them. Worker protection is an important issue for these people. In general, economic efficiency is not a key value for them, and they are more likely to favour a fair workplace than one that is merit-based.

The typical Green Progressive may not be who you think

We may have an idea now of these people’s values. But how would we know a Japanese green consumer when we see them ‘in the wild’. This is the challenge of all segmentations! But we have some clues. Two-thirds of the green segment we found were female, and their average household income was the lowest of all the segments we found. They are employed in a range of situations but also most commonly in the role of homemaker. Their average age is around 50. This relatively high average age is an interesting and possibly counter-intuitive finding. But we have found consistently in project after project carried out in the sustainability space that older people are the most likely to engage. Conversely, we find Japan’s youth to be, on the whole, quite conservative.

The generational dynamics of change are probably just around the opposite of what you would find in a developed western country. In a place like Australia (where I come from), the youth see themselves as the key changemakers, while the older citizens generally are seen to protect what they have and their way of life. This innate conservatism, even smugness on the part of more senior members of society, has driven the ‘hey boomer’ meme. Nothing equivalent to this exists in Japan. Here, the young are focused on getting on the ‘ladder’ and doing the things they need to do to establish their lives as productive members of society and, hopefully, get ahead financially. In many cases, young people don’t think about society much. Their focus is all on building the foundation for a secure life. This leaves it to the older members to think about society and what they want the future to be like.

We need to put aside our notions of whom we think is a changemaker in Japan. The ally you are looking for might just as likely be a modest homemaker in her 50s in the suburbs as it is a young, well informed, person in their 20s looking to make a difference. Therefore, establishing rapport and building messaging needs to keep this target in mind. The future may belong to the young, but the older members of Japanese society see it as their role to ensure it is a promising future.

Dominic Carter Bio

Representative Director & CEO

Dominic came to Japan from Australia in the late ’90s to launch the Japan business of a global research consultancy. In 2003, he started what is now The Carter Group, a diversified organisation serving the needs of international businesses looking to realise ambitious goals in the Japanese market. Over the last 25 years he has worked with some of the top brands in the world, fuelling their journeys to success through the expert application of consumer insights across cultural contexts to drive successful marketing strategy. Dominic is a frequent lecturer, guest speaker, trainer, consultant and commentator on all matters to do with consumer insights methodology, social mega-trends and the contemporary Japanese consumer.