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How to Craft Research for Japan; Culture Matters!

Many global research firms get trapped in a pitfall in designing the Japan leg of the global research project. "Consistent What and Differing How" is a norm one should always adhere to in global research projects that contain field research across many countries. More often than not, we need to adjust the specifics prescribed at the global level "What" to yield the best result from the research work in Japan.

This article sheds light on how we should deal with the "How" part of the norm to render the Japan leg most effective while keeping the "What" intact. Specifically, this article is about focus group research.


Every now and then, when we hold focus group interviews while overseas clients monitoring them beyond the one-way mirror, the clients immediately feel something is different from what they are usually seeing. Specifically, they expect each participant to become open and speak up resulting in bringing out actual feelings and thoughts. However, this is not typically what happens in Japan. What is different?

People here tend to be less willing to become open in public. As opposed to the "show-and-tell" culture typical in the U.S. where expressing one's opinions is highly encouraged, in Japan, there has been a traditional inclination toward becoming less talkative in public. This may be because people tend to change their attitude between while they are within their inner circle and while within their outer circle. Obviously, while they are within the former, they become more open and vice versa. In other words, people often become very laconic when they speak out among "strangers." One of my American friends named it a canned culture!

I would like to share with you how we have been addressing this cultural "impediment" while trying to elicit their true feelings and thoughts.


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Fortunately, this simple but universal approach is effective in Japan as well. People react to something funny and relaxing atmosphere kicks in. This is a warm-up.



Nobody tends to want to be the first to express his/her own thought even if asked. What we often do is to present a point about which people can't help saying something. For example, if you want to know the pattern of education spending by participants on their children, you may want to allude to a group of people who are "enthusiastic" about a certain type of educational spending. Since we have chosen people who are keen on education, each of them should have some clear opinion about it, be it positive or not. That works as an ignition.


Avoiding biased gravitation

In Japan, people tend to try to reach consensus as early as possible; many scholars suggest that this attitude stems from Japan's agricultural societal structure where group works are always looked for. This is also what we observe in focus group meetings. People tend to gravitate toward one opinion; once a certain position is built, a "snowball" effect often kicks in where people begin to rally around it. This is one of major impediments one should avoid once free-wheeling discussions begin. Although I don't get into specific tactics to stay away from the end result becoming highly biased because they are pretty common across cultures, the moderator should be very alert on this gravitational force gaining momentum and strike the balance of discussions.


This content was provided by SIS International Research with contribution from Japan Research Services. Visit the SIS International Research website at

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SIS International Research, founded in 1984, is a leading full-service Market Research and Market Intelligence firm.

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