We’ve stopped what we are doing and creating your personalized BrandZ™ report, which will appear in your inbox soon.

Diversification of society and brands

Kristina Cook

Managing Partner



Diversification of society and brands

Japan is on the cusp of momentous change, fueled by various socio-economic changes from within, and increased focus and attention from outside. These changes can be attributed to an aging and declining Japanese population, the subsequent reliance on increased numbers of foreign workers, and an increase in dual-income households – as well as the impact of hosting two of the world’s biggest spectacles, the Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.

Demographics isn’t destiny, but in the case of Japan it is a larger driver of cultural change. Historically a homogenous society, Japan is now in the slow process of broadening the composition of its society. The implication for the advertising world is that we need to reframe who we are talking to and how we communicate.

Since 2011, more than a quarter of the Japanese population has moved into retirement age. This has led to an urgent need for old-age care, and has left over two-thirds of Japanese companies with unfilled job positions. There are now as many as two open positions for every job-seeker in Japan.

At the same time, changes in immigration policy mean that non-Japanese people now make up 1.7% of the total population. While this is low in global terms (by contrast, 12% of Germany’s population consists of immigrants), it’s a major shift for Japan, and immigration numbers are likely to further increase by 40% next year. The majority of these immigrants are blue-collar workers from China and Vietnam filling roles for elderly care and within Japan’s manufacturing sector.

The increase in immigration is creating political tensions in society. A group calling itself Japan First is mimicking many other populist groups from around the world; the group’s opponents, meanwhile, claim that it is racist and close-minded. It’s certainly true that classifications such as “pure Japanese,” haafu, and gaijins are increasingly seen as culturally outdated as diversification increases.

In common with many other countries, Japanese culture has also seen a greater focus on gender and sexual equality. Last year, Japan moved from position 114 to 110 in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality rankings. Although improvements are obviously still required, this past year has seen a decrease in the gender wage gap and an increase in the number of women in the workforce.

The rise of dual-income households has led to less conformity to traditional gender roles, especially around parenting. Although many women are still responsible for managing the household and its finances, the growing number of high-earning women has led to increased female empowerment in the economy at large, as well as a growing need for products that can save people time and provide convenience.

In recent years, a number of politicians, comedians, musicians, models, and other high-profile individuals have brought the LGBT community farther into the Japanese cultural mainstream. Same-sex partnership certificates first became available in 2015, and are now issued in 20 wards nationwide. LGBT communities are now depicted positively on television programs and film, with Netflix currently in the process of creating a Japanese version of its hit show “Queer Eye.” And although Pride celebrations have been celebrated in Japan for more than a quarter century, in the past seven years or so Pride parades in Tokyo, Osaka, and Sapporo have begun to draw significant attendance and support from large numbers of businesses.

Showcase events such as the Rugby World Cup and Olympics are creating further discussion around inclusivity in Japanese culture. The Rugby World Cup has already led to the relaxation of restrictions of tattoos in onsens, in large part due to the Maori cultural heritage of familial tattoos (and the related prominence of Maori athletes in the sport of rugby). Youth culture, meanwhile, is being incorporated into the Olympics through the inclusion of skateboarding and surfing. And the popularity of social media platforms such as TikTok is a testament to the strong desire among Japanese youth to express themselves and seek acceptance.

Japan can expect further movement towards cultural diversification as Japanese youths pursue their interests in Western music, fashion, and lifestyle brands. These changes will be accelerated by increased travel abroad, as well as the ease of sharing inspiration via media and SNS. Interest in diversity has already led to an increase in the appeal of both foreign brands as well as authentically positioned Japanese brands. Japanese youth are above all attracted to brands that reflect their values.

Fortunately, these cultural shifts have largely been received as positive developments. It helps that they are seen as compatible with the new Reiwa era of imperial rule, which has been defined as a more upbeat and youthful period. Japan is in a celebratory mood of late; consider, for example, the recent Golden Week holiday in May 2019, which was extended to commemorate the new spirit of Reiwa.

What will these continued shifts mean for brands? Above all, messaging will need to be optimistic, inclusive, personalized, and connected to culture.

It is increasingly important to be inclusive and to avoid alienating women or minority groups. Backlash to brands perceived as straying from this inclusivity (such as recent accusations that ANA and Nissin have “whitewashed” tennis player Naomi Osaka) has started to make headlines.

Storytelling and individual messaging will also become increasingly important. Younger audiences are spending more time on digital channels, and mobile-first creative work will increasingly replace the 15-second television asset. Fortunately, digital communications will also allow for greater personalization and adaptability, allowing brands to connect with consumers at the speed of culture.

Brands now have the opportunity to change the conversation and influence culture by being authentic. We will be able to not just ride the wave of change in Japanese society, but to become exciting and meaningful agents of change.