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Our mission is to unmask Japan to reveal the real consumer truths

“Living in interesting times” sometimes requires nerves of steel . . . and a big heart

By: Debbie Howard

On March 13th, 2011, I sorrowfully opened a folder on my laptop called “earthquake.” One week later, it is as full of documents, links and other data as any one of my complicated market research projects.

It is difficult to think of anything else, even for those of us who are not located in the directly hit areas. Our hearts go out to the people of Tohoku, who saw their region devastated by the double whammy of both earthquake and tsunami — followed rapidly by the third whammy of nuclear power plant instability. Many from the international community, including some 17,000 US military personnel, are working feverishly to provide relief and assistance to the 300,000 people now living in shelters.

In Tokyo, which experienced quite a shake itself, there was fortunately only minimal damage. Many businesses, including mine, are maintaining operations via a combination of working ‘skeleton crews’ and working remotely from home, since our first concern is the safety and well-being of employees. Most trains are now running regularly again, and Tokyo is rather quickly “getting back to business.” For example, on the second weekend following the quake, the Ginza was as full of shoppers as on any pre-quake weekend. Many people followed their regular routines, such as jogging around the palace or playing their regular round of tennis with friends.

On the positive side, we have now seen the power and ability of technology to keep us all connected and informed, particularly wireless Internet, which continued to work well even when mobile phones did not. We have also seen the amazing ability of many of Japan’s infrastructural systems to stay on track under great duress, with many trains continuing to run on schedule, and in the face of problems, citizens demonstrating constraint, cooperation and orderly queuing.

In addition, travel and hospitality systems have been greatly strained, including airlines, hotels, and restaurants, even in areas as far away Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya and Kyoto. Yet things have basically continued to “work.” In fact, all companies and governments were greatly tested as they sought to grapple with rapid response in light of such a monumental three-way disaster.

On the negative side, the “collateral damage” of the three-way disaster has been quite frightening to observe: water, bread and cup-a-noodle disappearing rapidly from store shelves, very limited supplies of petrol, and mass exodus from Tokyo in the absence of accurate and timely information, causing “fears of the worst” to rise.

We have also seen the interesting juxtaposition of what the foreign press is saying while we may be experiencing something entirely different. Many foreigners have tales of having been “forced to leave” because their family and friends back home were over-wrought based on sensationalist reporting by the foreign press. This added much stress to an already very challenging situation.

Throughout, the perseverance, courage and kindness of the Japanese people have been demonstrated repeatedly, in both directly and indirectly hit areas. The stories we are now seeing about people helping each other and working together to find a way forward are extremely touching and admirable, and they remind me of why I have made my life in Japan for these past 25 years, and why I will continue to do so.

If all goes smoothly, Tokyo will basically be up and running again soon, since it was not directly affected. And certainly in other large cities, such as Osaka and Nagoya (which represent significant economies in their own rights), it is “business as usual.” Yes, we live in interesting times. Let us use our nerves of steel — and our hearts — to rebuild and move forward!

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

Originally Published 28th March 2011

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

We believe that, although the terrain you face in building a successful marketing strategy and activation path sometimes seems obscure, the path to success is knowable and that the consumer is the guide who will show you the way.