Inside Rakuten Insight – The Land of the Rising Contradictions (II)

“A common theme for those interested in Japanese culture is contradiction. There are many cultural reasons for why the West see Japan as a society full of contradictions, but this is also true for the impact COVID-19 has had on Japan and the whole world.”

Following our report on the impact of COVID-19 on consumer behaviour, we have an interesting series of articles about a couple of contradictions that were revealed while looking at the results, all through the eyes of Neil Cantle, Regional Head EU.


Part II: Conquering or Accepting Nature

A common theme for those interested in Japanese culture is contradiction. There are many cultural reasons for why the West see Japan as a society full of contradictions, but this is also true for the impact COVID 19 has had on Japan and the whole world.

With the objective of understanding further the impact of COVID 19 in Japan, Rakuten Insight has conducted research & analysis using their own proprietary panel in Japan comprising of approximately 2.2 million members. Largely owing to our place within the wider Rakuten Group Eco-system the panel in Japan is experiencing increasing feasibility in the numbers of monthly active users.

The results of the survey revealed a number of contradictions and this article will introduce a couple of interesting examples and begin to explain these contradictions in the context of Japanese culture.

In the West, Japanese culture is often seen positively as being at one with nature, such as the images of a snowy Mount Fuji or cherry blossoms in spring. Japan is also perceived to be positive in always looks for continuous improvement through ‘kaizen’ or struggling to create the manufacturing bubble of 1980s. Another image is of a very hygiene conscious society fearful of germs and catching any illnesses. Masks have been worn for a long time prior to coronavirus.

However, a contradiction emerges which creates a more negative, defeatist image of accepting the coronavirus crisis with an air of ambivalence. When asked how you think the world will change as a result of the coronavirus, 84.9% felt that the economy would get worse but interestingly only 25.6% of people felt that the state of the environment would improve.

Source: Rakuten Insight survey on impact of COVID-19, n=1000, April 2020

The reality is that Japanese do live in harmony with nature but usually when only when it has been tamed. Japan has experienced nature so raw and wild that it cannot be tamed and just has to be accepted on many occasions. The Tsunami on 11th March 2011 or the 1995 Kobe earthquake are just two recent examples.

As a result, during the coronavirus the West may expect Japanese people to either be very fearful of the virus or adopt a united, positive fight to make the best of the situation. However, contradicting this expectation, people are approaching this crisis as a natural phenomenon that cannot be tamed and just has to be accepted. Rather than stay home and not go out or acting as a united society to fight against the virus, what is happening is that people are simply trying to carry on with their daily lives as best they can. Our survey found that only 20% of people had started working from home as suggested/mandated compared to over 50% in UK. This going out and continuing to work as best they can may also be misinterpreted as not following government rules.

So next time you see Japan on the news reacting to coronavirus, stop and think that this a culture that has experience unconquerable natural phenomena many times before and accepts that they will have to do so many times in the future too.

Neil is Regional Head for EU at Rakuten Insight. Neil has also spent many years living in Japan and working for leading Japanese companies.


■Survey Details
Markets: China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, United States, Vietnam
Sample Size: 1,000 per market
Sample Source: Rakuten Insight proprietary panel
Survey Timing: April 2020
Related Articles: Impact of COVID-19 on Consumer Behaviour, The Land of the Rising Contradictions (I)
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