It had been 15 years since I was last in Japan and what a difference more than a decade makes. Moments from my visits then were similar to the “Lost in Translation” experience from the Bill Murray film. I stepped out of my hotel to go to the Edelman office and quickly returned upon discovering that there wasn’t a single street sign I could read – a true moment of cultural awakening.
Fast forward to today. The now ubiquitous street, metro and store signs in Western characters are just one indication of how Japan wants to do business the world over. The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer indicated that the world is equally receptive to Japanese business, with 65 percent of the general public and 74 percent of informed publics trusting companies whose headquarters are in Japan. The nature of interest in doing business globally is quite different from the ‘80s when the booming Japanese economy prompted a desire to own marquee U.S. landmarks such as Rockefeller Center or Pebble Beach golf course. Now it is all about strategy as evidenced with the purchase of Jim Beam by Suntory or the merger of Tokyo Electron with Applied Materials.
Japanese business leadership also is interested in helping lead and foster knowledge of the opportunities presented not just by Japan but by all of Asia. This is strikingly inclusive. Ken Koyanagi, who publishes the new Nikkei Asian Review (an Edelman client), talked about the need for broad English-based business coverage from Mumbai to Sydney.
These factors contribute to a rapidly changing communications environment. Time spent with colleagues taught me about the opportunities we have to stretch beyond traditional media relations counsel – we can, and should, offer advice and execution against a broad range of marketing needs.
However, there are storm clouds on the horizon. Yes, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has created positive momentum and a “reason to believe” in the Japanese economy, but that upbeat message may be short-lived given a variety of factors from societal to economic. Japan is a rapidly aging society with a very low birth rate. This inevitability is already applying pressures that will only get more challenging. And three years out from the earthquake and Fukushima crisis, the cost of energy has soared and made a seriously material impact on the trade deficit.
The genuine concern about the economy and where Japan’s mid- to long-term future lies is offset by universal excitement for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo. Everyone with whom I spoke talked of the Olympics as if they were next month. And truth to tell with a society that is so well organized and maintains a “can do” attitude, I think they could actually pull off the Olympics with one month’s notice.
With all the excitement and potential I see here today, I’ll make sure it’s not another 15 years before I visit again.
Matthew Harrington is Edelman’s global chief operating officer.
Image by Maureen Chaffurin