Five marketing and business lessons from Japan

Japan Nikko shrine

I just finished up a speaking tour of Tokyo in support of the Japanese translation of my book Return On Influence. This was my third trip to Japan and with each visit I become so inspired by this wonderful country and its people. Here are five lessons I picked up from my visit that I thought would be fun to share with you!

Bowing deeply

When I entered the headquarters building for meetings with Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency, I noticed a strange sign in the lobby — a neck tie with an “X” through it.  My colleague explained that employees were not required to wear ties in the hot summer season and the placard offered an apology, explaining that the company was saving energy and did not mean any sign of disrespect to customers.

Several years ago, I attended a customer celebration where the people from my company literally were on their knees bowing when the customers entered the room.

This fanatical view of service is pervasive in the Japanese culture. When it comes to customers, they bow deeply. If you think you are focused on customer satisfaction, visit Japan for a week and you will be truly humbled.

No, the world is not all Facebook-crazy

Japan Niko shrine lionI met with some of the country’s top bloggers and marketing thought leaders and I learned that traditional media still has a very strong hold on the media culture here. Bloggers are still in the early stages of establishing a foothold — quite different from  America.

One reason, they explained, is that there is no cable TV in Tokyo. Instead of the hundreds of channels fighting for attention that we have in America, there are five channels that have progressively grown stronger. One marketer told me that the Japanese consumer has been “optimized” for television and this tie is becoming even more powerful now that programs can be viewed everywhere on mobile devices.

While social media use is growing in Japan, it is not the dominating cultural force for change as it is in other parts of the world. Blogging, podcasting, and personal video channels are years behind where we are in the U.S. — which is perfectly fine. The channels are wrapping around the culture.

Attention to process

I was sitting in the hotel lobby and noticed a piece of thread drifting to the floor after a guest passed by. As soon as it hit the floor, an employee literally ran over to the spot to pluck it up.

The cabs and bus seats are covered with clean white doilies and even many truck drivers wear white gloves. In every place I visited — hotels, office buildings, restaurants, retail stores — it seems that not a single detail went un-noticed.

Of course the Japanese have traditions for many common business practices, too. Even a simple exchange of business cards or a hand shake is filled with meaning.

The point is, there is a lot of attention on HOW things get done, not just WHAT gets done and that makes a huge difference. In America, the emphasis is usually on the results, not necessarily the means to get there, and I think that leads to a lot of the shady Internet practices we see today.

Social influence on the rise

Japan Niko shrine pagodaI attended several meetings and discussions focused on social influence marketing and the interest in this subject and approach is the most sophisticated I have seen.

Some companies are moving beyond the experimental stage and are on the way toward developing advanced models, processes, and measurement.  If you consider the culture’s deep respect for the customer, combined with a heritage of  creative applications of technology, this trend makes perfect sense. Soon, social influence marketing will become a mainstream competency. One large company already has a social influence marketing department.

A gentle touch

I’m not sure of another word but “civil” to contrast what I experience in Japan versus other places. Certainly a homogeneous culture built on thousands of years of collaboration in a small land space would contribute to this. But it’s just a nicer place.

One of the challenges Facebook has in Japan is that the population prefers anonymous handles instead of their real names (a hallmark of the Facebook terms of service).  I asked one blogger if that promoted a culture where people would be “meaner” to each other since they can hide behind false personas. He looked mystified. I repeated the question. “No. Why would we be mean to each other?” he said.

This week, an anonymous commenter called me “an idiot” because of a misspelling on a post. I think many folks could  benefit from taking a deep breath and inserting more civility into their work, including me.

Challenges and opportunity

Tokyo is an intense place. It is incredibly crowded, expensive and — despite a superb public transportation system — difficult to navigate. Yet, the underlying culture and kindness of the people is such an inspiration. I think our business world would be so much more pleasant and effective if we all had a little bit of Japanese in our hearts. That’s my goal, any way!

What are your thoughts? Have you had similar observations about Japan?

Illustrations: All original photos from Nikko World Heritage Site.

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  • Great article Mark.

    I have always wanted to visit Japan. Reading your article only confirms and enforces why I must go 🙂

    Do you have the URL’s of any of the bloggers you met whilst there, might make for an interesting/refreshing read!?

  • The attention to detail is, as you said, incredible. When I used to visit companies there and take a tour, the leader would show me around and in each department, everyone would stand up and bow to welcome me. And it is the only place I can ever remember that during a presentation when I said there is a 15 minute break, everyone came back in 15 minutes!

  • Barbara Behan

    Enjoyed your article very much. Never having visited Asia, I find my assumptions about the people and culture are pretty uninformed. Your first-hand observations filled those in, and it’s educational to contrast them with how we do business in the U.S.

  • I have the business cards from several of the bloggers but they only blog in Japanese, which is why their views have not been widely spread. However, I am trying to encourage a few of them to do guest posts for {grow} so watch this space! : )

    If you ever get a chance to go, you should do it. It is an eye-opening experience. This post touches just a bit of it really. If you make plans let me know and I will give you a few tips.

  • Yes, good point! Punctuality also a hallmark of the business culture there! Thanks Barbara!

  • Glad you enjoyed the article Barbara. Thanks for letting me know!

  • I was hoping Google translate might be able to help but on past experience it probably wouldn’t make much sense!

    I do need to book it, maybe next year, thanks for the offer! 🙂

  • Eric Routenberg

    I believe there is more “intention” to detail, the Japanese are incredibly detailed, on ALL things, family, work, play, influence; They get it! Fantastic article Mark

  • I loved living in Japan in the 1980’s – every time I watch Lost in Translation I’m transported back to that time. I plan to live and work there again for a couple of years, but not in Tokyo this time.

    I took my children there for a visit to experience the culture back in 2005. I’ve tried to expose them to as many cultures as possible as they were growing up, so that they have a wider world view. It was amazing seeing it through their eyes and it was one of their favourite places to visit. So very different from the UK.

    I agree with your insights into their business and customer service oriented culture. It’s a well oiled machine. They do have their issues as well though. I wouldn’t like to hold up their culture as perfect. They have many social issues that they are working hard to overcome just like the rest of us.

    Thanks for painting such a vivid picture of your visit. It filled my lunchtime reading with delight and smiles.

  • Thanks Eric!

  • I agree Kittie. In a short article I couldn’t provide a comprehensive view, but they have their struggles too. But the lessons are strong for us in business! Thanks for sharing your perspective. Your children are lucky to have these experiences!

  • The lessons are strong indeed – we could do with some of their courtesy, intent, and discipline rubbing off on us in the west.

    Hopefully the girls with agree with that sentiment as they get older 🙂

  • Interesting insights, Mark.

    I used to live in Tokyo a few years ago – what a unique place !
    The Japanese are known for being super advanced in some ways (consumer electronics), while being behind in others (most offices still use fax).
    What I luv, and what you point out, Mark, is their care for the customer. There’s a sense of elegance and respect, no matter where you go. Everything’s really clean and tidy, and has a sense of art to it.
    (did you see the vending machines and their ginormous selection ?)

    I think I’ve never met so many people with manners like there 😉

    But I agree on the Tokyo transportation system – for foreigners, it’s a complicated mess 😉

  • I actually found the transportation system to be better than a few years ago — more signs in English. Also, they are making a bid for the 2020 Olympics so they will have to make the system much more user-friendly! Thanks for the comments Mars.

  • “(Japanese) Bloggers are still in the early stages of establishing a foothold.”

    It is my understanding that Japan holds one of the largest blogging communities in the world. A quick Google search gave me this stat:

    “With 37% of the world’s blog posts being in Japanese, its surprising that few people outside the country know it has the largest and most active blogging culture in the world.” –

  • Barry, I might be able to recommend a few Japanese blogs in English if you let me know what specifically you are looking for. Please feel free to contact me.

  • That would be great, thanks 🙂 Anything regarding Social Media, Online Marketing or Photography would be awesome!

  • Nice article. I think that these points translate over to the rest of the world. A light touch and respect go a long ways. Thanks for the reminders.

  • Mark,

    I LOVE the concept of “Bow Deeply.”

    There has to be an amazing customer service book in that concept somewhere.

    Here’s my question to you…

    Do American consumers (and I know this is a broad sweeping generalization) appreciate a company that bows deeply to them?


  • Candice Sabatini


    I’ve been to Japan three times – all business trips with my husband. So while he worked during the day, I was on my own, something I’m very comfortable with in a safe place, as Japan is.

    I find your observations interesting, and agree with some. I love the cleanliness, and the attention to detail. But being a man, you received much better treatment than women do. In the subways, not only would a man not give up his seat for a woman, but he’ll aggressively shoulder her out of the way and run to grab the seat before she can get to it. Makes no difference if she’s pregnant or a senior – man is king and he gets the seat. I remember walking out of the busy Mitsukoshi Dept store on a busy day and a Japanese man elbowing me in my ribcage so he could walk out first, which in his mind, was his privilege. When I let out an accidental “ouch”, he looked at me with a stern, “you have no right to complain” look.
    My husband worked with a hi-tech financial company of movers and shakers and his associates were both young and older. They knew his wife was with him on his trips, and yet every night for two weeks, they insisted on taking him out for drinks and/or dinner and not once inviting me, nor having any concern for his desire to end the evening at a reasonable time so that we could have dinner together. It’s one thing to go for a happy hour after work drink, but they often insisted the evening linger on to 3 to 4 hours. Oh and of course, none of the women he worked with were ever invited to go out with “the boys”, even though they were execs too,
    My funniest story about how the Japanese can’t think out of their set ways was trying to buys rolls in our hotel for the train ride we were about to take. It was out last day in Japan and had to take the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, and then a train to the Tokyo airport. We were checking out of our hotel and in a rush to get the shuttle van to the train station. While my husband was taking care of the hotel bill, I went to the casual breakfast restaurant where they had a mountain of freshly baked rolls that sold 3 for $10. I went to the lovely waitress, handed her $20. in yen, told her I’d like 6 rolls to go because we were running late. She insisted I take a seat at a table and order because they don’t sell rolls “to go”. I politely explained our time dilemma and she offered to sell me 2 slices of cake, because they did sell cake “to go”. But I didn’t want cake for breakfast. She now called in two managers, and a great discussion ensued. I felt like I was in a Marx Brothers movie. It was so ridiculous, it was comical. It took three people to sort out that they would not sell me rolls to go, but cake was okay. They were not running out of rolls, there were plenty and most likely many would go into the garbage after the breakfast service. I had to leave empty handed. Of course, once I was on the train, and hungry, it occurred to me that I should have just sat down at a table, ordered the rolls, dumped them in my purse, paid, and left. (duh me!)
    I could go on with many other stories about their inflexibility, such as how a “set lunch” cannot be changed. If it comes with soba noodles, you can’t switch to white ones. If it comes with chocolate ice cream, don’t ask to switch to vanilla – it simply can’t be done. Many restaurants only put one menu on a table, asking for a second one creates discussion and confusion with the waitress and manager.
    Do I enjoy Japan? VERY much! I’d go back again in a minute. But I have to say that the customer is not king – tradition is. If something hasn’t been done before – such a selling rolls to go – it can’t be done now until there are multiple meetings and negotiations from top execs. Yes, it is a pleasure that no one steals (we rode bicycles thru Kyoto, left them unlocked for an hour at a time, and they were never touched). But the culture has many drawbacks, especially if you’re “just” a woman.

  • “Civil” indeed. Decided to live in Japan two months into a six-months assignment. Been living here for 26 years, get along without much speaking the language. Honored that Matthew E. May shared my story among dozens of others in his newest book, The Laws of Subtraction. 

  • You’re the man.

  • Well said Michael!

  • They’ve never seen one. Not like this. : )

  • Very interesting observations and I have seen some of that too. But it was a short blog post : ) Much appreciated.

  • You know, I didn’t realize you were living in Japan. Thanks for letting me know! Good to hear from you.

  • Candice Sabatini

    Sorry if my comment was longer than your blog post. 🙂

  • Always a good thing. Thanks for the gift. : )

  • I bow deeply to your expertise in that area Robert : )

    My data points were certainly limited, but there could also be two explanations for the difference in opinion. First, the article you reference piles tweets, podcasts, videos, comics, and photo sites as “blogging.” In my context, and the context of the covnersations I was having, I was strictly referring to text blogs. That does not necessarily mean you are incorrect, it just could be one explanation of the claims of the article.

    Second, the bloggers I spoke to said that bloggers are not recognized or respected in Japan as they are in other countries, and they pointed to the dominance of the mainstream media. That could be another interpretation. Even if the blogs are happening, are they being recognized? Are bloggers being invited to mainstream events, etc? Any way, I’m a student making observations, not an expert and that is why I am especially appreciative that you added your voice of experience. Thank you!

  • Many thanks Fransgaard, appreciate this 🙂

  • Great resources, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • The article is probably not the best proof as I also meant text-blogs, but I know the data holds up in terms of text-only blogs.

    Interesting point about them not being recognised. This could be because most Japanese people blog under pseudonyms rather than their real names, which might make blogging seem less trustworthy.

  • No problem 🙂

  • Anna Pham

    Love this article Mark, for me the Japanese culture always contain values that make it so sfgnificant about the way people live, work and interact.

  • MaureenMonte

    What a great blog post, Mark. I’ve never been to Japan, but I work with Japanese colleagues and customers, and love the heightened sense of politeness. In addition, I study martial arts. Most people think that means that I kick, punch, swear, and want to be in “the octogon.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The real purpose of a dojo is destruction of the ego (Mr. Anonymous could benefit from that). With that comes a sense of partnership and etiquette that is largely absent in American culture. In this particular school of martial arts, one must meditate (calm the mind), and you won’t get in trouble for having a bad side kick (and many will help you improve), but you will if you are not a good partner to others. We bow when we enter, when we leave, when we speak to our instructors and senior students, and before and after each class. I love it because it grounds me in what matters – being a person who responds well in all circumstances, relying on calmness, dignity, and good manners. 🙂 So I have my own little slice of Japan, right here in Berkley, Michigan. All we need are the white gloves…

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