Qualitative research in Japan, like in many countries, is challenged by a consumer culture that is very different to our own. How do market research companies overcome these challenges?

There is a common misconception in the market research industry that Japan is not a great host for qualitative research. An ambiguous assumption is that the individualistic nature of the market research discipline is not harmonious with a culture that privileges collective harmony. Japanese people have been labelled as formal, unable to express individual feelings and unwilling to disagree. But how true are these claims? And how can market research companies bridge these cultural barriers?

In the latest issue of Research, Nick Roberts outlines 4 ways in which market research organisations undertaking research in Japan should alter the way they work to suit the Japanese culture:

1. Getting informal
Japanese respondents in focus groups do not take part in pre-group small talk and opt instead for a state of reserved formality. Roberts recommends taking focus groups out of the usual viewing room setting and into a more informal environment, such as a café or bar, or recreating this environment if facilities are limited. To aid the informal atmosphere and encourage respondents to open up, it’s even recommended to screen participants beforehand.

2. Solo Side-Projects
Japanese do not naturally talk about themselves, both at work and at home. Because of this, it is not easy to get Japanese respondents to talk about their own feelings or opinions, crucial to qualitative research. Roberts advises market research companies to use individual pre-tasks, particularly online, which creates a good baseline for respondents to share details about themselves in an anonymous environment.

3. Co-Creative Conversations
According to Roberts, the idea that Japanese people are too polite to criticise is a myth. He believes that the myth can be turned on its head, and by using the Japanese respondents’ strong work ethic and polite nature it is possible to generate constructive criticism from them if you give them clear instructions and treat them honestly. In this way, Japanese people actually respond more to the idea of mutual trust than westerners. This can be particularly productive in face-to-face workshops between clients and consumers.

4. Intelligent Interpretation
Japanese people do not always say what they think or do what they say, but this is true of any culture. Roberts believes the real challenge is to gain a wider understanding of the country’s culture, and once a sense of the Japanese culture is refined, it is possible to gauge the temperature in any focus group. The key, Roberts asserts, is to decipher what is left unsaid, but this philosophy should be the foundation of any good qualitative research.

Once differences in culture are accepted and research methods are adapted, it is possible to produce great qualitative research in Japan.