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By Dominic Carter

Values are challenged by the complexity of modern life 

For many, one of the toughest challenges in developing one’s values set is navigating through extremes. There is a temptation to assume simplistic (or unbalanced) world views that provide a sense of security. Others opt out of the task entirely, preferring to put their heads in the sand. Then there are those who appreciate the benefits of continuity with a rational eye to the future, fully accepting that change is a necessary constant. The beauty of a mindset such as this is that cultural ‘babies’ are not thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, with problems still recognised and addressed with clear eyes. 

I introduce to you Japan’s Balanced Traditionalists

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, as well as the world of work and emergent social and environmental issues. 

We apply a statistical method called cluster analysis to identify people with similar values and place them into separate groupings. Within these groups, members are more similar in their worldview to each other than they are to members of other groups. 

Balanced Traditionalists respect the past and the institutions that make Japan what it is 

From our analysis, we found that about 17% of our population-representative sample aged 15-69 embodied what seemed like a traditional mindset – yet also with progressive characteristics. Relative to the other segments, strength, confidence, and the ability to project power is a crucial view of these people. To a far stronger degree than other segments, they feel that if tried and true ways were respected, we would have many fewer problems today. They believe that respecting the institutions that have stood the test of time will lead to prosperity. Furthermore, they feel that people should respect those in power and that society works best when people hold their role in the hierarchy. Few would argue that these are classical conservative values. 

Traditional yet open minded  

Whereas in western societies, ‘carrying a torch’ for sustainability is seldom viewed as a conservative value, the Balanced Traditionalists clearly favour the idea that ‘sustainability is our only future’. They feel that Japan is not doing enough to combat environmental problems. Furthermore, they are the most likely of our segments, by a wide margin, to be happy to see more foreigners living in Japan. Confident in their outlook and for the country at large, they are not particularly frustrated by the country’s politicians, nor do they see Japan as being particularly at risk from exploitation by outside forces. Alongside their calm and practical approach to dealing with Japan’s issues, they heavily favour science as the answer to many of today’s problems. In the workplace, even though they support hierarchy (presumably on its own merits and because they probably stand to benefit), they also believe the most qualified people should always get the job.  

I feel the picture painted of this segment would incorporate surprising characteristics for a traditionalist to many who have witnessed the culture wars of recent years in the west. But, of course, the whole point of cross-cultural research is to uncover the areas where people think differently. 

These traditional people are not particularly old either; their average age of around 43 is below the Japanese average. Economically successful, though not as prosperous as the more go-getting 20th Century Modernists, they count many among the current winners in Japan’s modern economy. As a group, they are slightly skewed female at 53%, but this is not enough to define them. In gender, as in their views, they are quite well balanced. 

Green, and with the clout to make a difference 

The Balanced Traditionalists’ views on climate and the environment are particularly fascinating. For example, almost 8 in 10 of them agree that businesses, both Japanese and foreign, should be encouraged by their customers to stop investing in projects which could add momentum to global climate change. This is an even higher agreement rate than our Green Progressives, among whom 7 in 10 endorse this point.  

It’s a common hypothesis in climate advocacy organizations that people have become more conscious about the environment (and issues like climate change) since the Covid crisis hit. This is indeed true for 7 in 10 Balanced Traditionalists. However, the result among all the other segments, including the Green Progressives, is 2 in 10. So, it’s largely only among our Balanced Traditionalist segment that we see any significant shift in attitudes on this most progressive of issues. 

Further, when you ask a Balanced Traditionalist whether they would switch to buying products or services provided by environmental-friendly companies or brands, 7 in 10 agree. In contrast, the rate among Green Progressives is lower than 5 in 10. As the most financially-challenged segment, we understand why Greens are less likely to move their yen to potentially more expensive products. Nevertheless, who then is the more critical change-making group? Is it those with strong views but limited economic power or rather those living active, materially successful lives and willing to put their money where their mouth is? 

Have we found a sweet spot for marketers? 

The discovery of the Balanced Traditionalists should be hugely encouraging for those who struggle with innate conservatism, apathy or opposition to change when marketing to Japanese people. The reality is that there is a dynamic segment that is both respectful of tradition and motivated by the promise of a brighter future. What better prescription is there for a foreign marketer to act in this market? Gain rapport by respecting what exists in culture and paying heed to what people hold is emotionally essential in their lives, while promising a better future based on rational precepts. I hypothesise that there are many cases where this is the segment for which you should be honing your marketing strategy. It’s not impossible that the rest of the market will follow.

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.