The Case for Qual in Japan
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The Case for Qual in Japan



When it comes to qualitative research, Japan has a reputation problem. The received wisdom is that the country’s culture of conformity and homogeneity makes consumer discussions difficult.


However, with the right approach and a dose of clear thinking from all involved, there’s no reason why research here can’t make a valuable contribution to marketing and brand thinking. In fact, if there’s anything holding back qualitative research in Japan, it’s not the consumer culture but the culture of the industry itself.


Japan’s ‘unique’ challenges

Japanese culture is not considered the best host for qualitative research. The individualistic assumptions that have traditionally informed the discipline are seen to clash with a culture that values collective harmony over personal opinion. Some of the concerns we’ve encountered, from clients and from fellow researchers, are that Japanese people are too formal, are unable to express individual feelings, or are unwilling to disagree – with the moderator or with each other.

As with most stereotypes, there’s a kernel of truth to these criticisms. However, as is also usually the case, differences are exaggerated at the expense of less attention-grabbing similarities. The western idea of Japan as an almost alien place is encouraged by locals intent on maintaining their sense of a ‘unique’ identity, one truly notable aspect of the Japanese psyche.

This isn’t to deny that there are challenges to conducting good research in Japan. However, we’ve found that with the right approach just about anything is possible. Some of our recent highlights include intimate in-home ethnographies, candid video diaries, and co-creation sessions bringing together clients and consumers.

In this article we want to focus on that mainstay of qualitative research, the group discussion, and highlight a few of the approaches we’ve used before, during and after to get the most from Japanese consumers.


1. Getting Informal:
Watch a Japanese focus group and the first thing you’ll notice is the absence of pre-group small talk amongst respondents. Amongst strangers, the default Japanese response is a state of reserved formality. That’s why it’s absolutely vital to set the tone for an open discussion at an early stage. Unlike in the West, it’s rare here for people to socialise at home. Ideally, groups should feel like they’re happening over drinks after work – a setting in which even the archetypal salaryman feels he can speak his mind.

Whenever possible we like to take groups out of the viewing room and into a more informal environment, such as a cafe or bar. When this isn’t possible, we’ve found that even recreating the scene in a facility can help people relax and open up. Another approach that we’ve found works well is friendship groups, a surefire way to generate a natural and frank conversation. Conversely, in business groups – the one time when deference can be a serious problem – it helps if conversations take place between people who don’t know each other. In all cases it’s key that some time is allotted for the ‘rules’ of the group – sharing thoughts and opinions – to be established at the get-go and reinforced with practice exercises.

Getting informal also means taking a sensible approach to sampling. Beyond obvious things like keeping life-stages together and age ranges fairly narrow, we also pre-screen all of our respondents for a basic level of openness. For creative and strategic development work we go a step further and actively recruit sociable, outgoing personality types who will contribute and help push ideas forward. Our opinion leader panels rival any in their willingness to speak their minds and creatively contribute.

2. Solo Side-Projects:
Talking about oneself does not come naturally to many Japanese. In school and at work, freely sharing one’s opinions can even seem rude. However, this doesn’t mean that Japanese people do not have a point of view.

Individual pre-tasks work brilliantly in Japan to set a baseline for individual opinions and turbo-charged group discussions. We’ve found that online tasks work particularly well. The relatively anonymous environment provides a more comfortable environment for respondents to share intimate details of their lives. The richness that multimedia can provide can also be a great asset in bringing the unfamiliar culture alive for foreign clients and observers.

When this isn’t possible, taking time in groups to collect individual written responses before discussion can help speed up conversations and get a range of views on the table.

3. Co-Creative Conversations:
The idea that Japanese respondents are too polite to criticise an idea is a myth. On the contrary, consumers here are generally conscientious about carrying out the task they feel is expected of them. Providing their role is properly understood, this can help to build a positive and constructive environment.

In our experience, creating this kind of atmosphere requires a willingness to open up the creative process to consumers, enabling participants to deal in concrete details rather than foggy abstracts. It comes back to mutual trust – when consumers feel that they are being dealt with honestly, we’ve noticed that they are much more likely to be constructive with their feedback. We’ve even extended this approach to full-on workshops, bringing clients and consumers face to face for extremely open & productive sessions.

There is perhaps more truth to the idea that consumers within a group won’t challenge each other. This is not, however, the same as conformity of opinion. In a typical group, differences are just couched in less confrontational terms. This can mean less of the natural back-and-forth between respondents common to western groups. To really ‘hot-house’ ideas then, it can require pro-active moderation, picking out emergent themes, occasionally challenging responses and tasking consumers to co-operate on developing them.


4. Intelligent Interpretation:
As anywhere else, Japanese people do not always say what they think, or do what they say. As always with qualitative research, understanding requires a grasp of the wider context and a willingness to read between the lines. Whilst Japanese reactions may not be as extroverted as those in, say, a Brazilian group, it’s still possible for a skilled and experienced observer to gauge the ‘temperature’ in the room. As is so often the case with qualitative research, so much is about what is left unsaid. We need to be anthropologists, not just parrot back what people tell us.

Here we find it helps to blend local and global perspectives in our project teams, combining an intimate understanding of the culture with the fresh eyes of a more distanced ex-pat perspective.


A challenge to the industry
So if it’s possible to conduct good research in Japan, then why the bad rep? In our opinion, the expectations and culture of the industry itself are partly to blame.

On the one hand, there is misinterpretation from foreign researchers and clients watching Japanese research through the lens of their own cultural expectations. Groups here can seem less animated, less ‘theatrical’ than may be common elsewhere. This is a reflection of the culture, in which people are relatively reserved. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons to be learned, given sensitive and careful attention.

However, qualitative research here is also held back by an indigenous industry that has grown up largely on the back of large quantitative-focused agencies. There’s still a lack of faith in the views of the researcher and a sometimes unhealthy obsession with bias – at worst a desire to stick to ‘the facts’. With agencies often spending much of their time facilitating international projects, with little need for reporting or analysis, research can tend to be viewed as a series of mechanical steps. The most valuable stage of the process, the thinking and interpretation, can be neglected.

Finally, fixed ideas amongst both foreigners and locals about what Japanese consumers are like and are capable of – the myth of the ‘unique’ Japanese – has created a lack of faith in what can be achieved here. Actually, we’ve found that with a bit of good thinking and accounting for the local particularities just about anything is possible. If more people within the industry were willing to look beyond the conventional, they might just be surprised by the results.

Nick Roberts is a research director at Sugata Japan in Tokyo. You can follow them on Twitter @sugatajapan


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