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Looking at Japan through the prism of golf, skiing and driving

By: Debbie Howard

Taking a look at several activities in Japan and how the corresponding experience in the U.S. is different provides us with clues for understanding the essence of Japan. It also provides fodder for brainstorming business concepts for both markets.

For example, having golfed, skied and driven in both countries, I have without a doubt found the experiences to be indicative somehow of each respective culture.

Take golfing for example. In Japan, even playing at a non-exclusive course is quite an arduous experience — complete with a 2-hour one-way journey to the course, a full day including forced lunch (you can’t opt to play through!), and a price tag some 4–5X that of the U.S. Then again, you can’t beat the service and amenities, including bag loading at the front door, female caddies (“Hit it right down the middle!”) and a nice, hot Japanese soak at day’s end. In the U.S., things tend to be more relaxed, with a variety of tee-times available, less than strict enforcement of dress code, and in general, more of a “do it yourself” approach.

That more relaxed, “do it yourself” tendency can also be seen with ski trips in the U.S., where most people rent a condo or chalet and plan their own day (including meals). Not so in organized Japan! Most skiers stay in “pension” (small, family-owned lodges) with rather strictly set times for both breakfast (7:30 a.m.) and dinner (6:30 p.m.). And there’s no nightlife in most Japanese ski towns, either, with the notable exception of Nisseko-Hirafu in Hokkaido. The ski runs are much more proscribed in Japan as well — in part due to space constraints, but also due to design.

And driving . . . in the U.S., the highway system is so expansive and well-developed that we have built a culture around road trips, whereas in Japan, traffic is so crowded that if one wishes to really take a car on a spin, you’d have to do it in the middle of the night. On the other hand, everyone drives relatively predictably.

In space-constrained Japan, knowing and following the rules is an important part of what makes society work. Of course, in the U.S., there is more space, and there is also more of an historical imperative for “freedom” and following one’s own rules.

One of the outcomes of this in Japan is that most people take lessons for whatever it is they are trying or wanting to do. With driving, a high percentage of drivers take lessons in advance of passing their driving tests — even though it is very expensive. And even with so-called “hobbies” such as golf and skiing, Japanese tend to like to take lessons to make sure they are doing things “the right way.”

New business ideas can be found in the differences — for example, if Japanese golf courses took a less rigid view of starting times (and forcing players to have lunch), they might be able to better fill their courses with new golfers who might not otherwise have a chance to play.

U.S. delivery companies could take a page out of the “takyubin” (delivery) services that are so fabulous in Japan — for not only ski and golf gear, but a myriad of other items that people need (and may not now want to bother with checking on airplanes).

Perhaps driving lessons could also be leveraged in the U.S. — I can certainly see the need for that based on personal observation. And in Japan, with a little bit of innovation, maybe we could even have nightlife on the ski slopes.

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

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 28th July 2008

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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