Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: November 1999

Time Well Spent

by William Hall

You've got a crackerjack idea, you're eyeing the Net, and you want to launch an online business in Japan. Great, except it's important to remember that your Net-surfing future customers are flesh-and-blood Japanese, and the more you know about them, the better you'll do. So what do you actually know about their work habits, demographic influences, language, lifestyles, or their attitudes toward technology-specifically, your company's? Well, if you're like most (Western) managers, the answer is "precious little."

The problem, of course, is that it is precisely this "soft" aspect of Japan about which you'll have the most trouble finding unbiased opinion and reliable data. And more likely than not, you'll hear things like, "You can't do that in Japan," or, "The Japanese are . . . (fill in your choice)." These statements, are, unfortunately, more common than spam on a chat site, and-in most cases-are wrong, outdated, or simply serve as a pretext to maintain the status quo.

But factual research data-in the Japanese language-covering these "softer" aspects of Japanese society do exist. Government ministries, think tanks, newspapers, and private corporations frequently conduct surveys to plumb the depths of the average denizen, and one such study was conducted recently by the Citizen Watch Company. The survey examined the amount of time spent by Japanese business people on certain daily activities. An identical study was conducted in 1974, enabling some interesting comparisons between daily habits of today and those of 20 years ago.

In the morning
For Tokyo workers, leisurely breakfasts at home are clearly not the norm, with almost 80% of the sample spending ten minutes or less on breakfast. Compared to 1974, the time taken to eat breakfast has declined, and the percentage of persons not consuming breakfast at all has almost doubled to 14%.

Of course, behind every statistic there is often a business opportunity. In response to this compression of time available for breakfast at home, there has been a mushrooming of coffee shops/sandwich bars that offer "morning service"-quick breakfasts at major railway stations near the end of the morning commute. Not exactly the traditional healthy Japanese breakfast of fish, rice, and seaweed, but it gets the salaryman through the morning!

On the train
More than 70% commuted for one hour or more (one-way) in 1999, and the length of time spent commuting has increased over the past 25 years. A little less than half the sample (42%) now commute for more than one hour (one-way), implying that some three hours per day are spent on getting to and from the office. This is a damning indictment on Japanese government land policies over the period, and clearly acts as a brake on the critical task of improving white-collar productivity in Japan.

Getting the news
Over 50% of respondents do not read the morning newspaper at home, double the percentage of 25 years ago. Given the crowded commuting conditions on the trains and buses where it is normally impossible to open a newspaper, and, given that there is little or no privacy at the office-where desks are cheek-by-jowl in open-floor-plan style-the efficacy of newspaper advertising to this target audience has to be considered as rather questionable.

At night
There has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of sleep enjoyed each night, with over 70% getting six hours or less versus only 32% in 1974. One-quarter of the sample now sleep just five hours (or less) per night. This statistic serves as a useful reminder about not turning the lights down too low in a business presentation; the person you thought was staring in fixed attention may in fact be sound asleep.

Finally, among respondents who were married, 41% spent 15 minutes or less per day talking to their spouse, including 10% who did not speak with their spouse at all. The state of marital relations is a topic we'll save until another time, but please feel free to quote this statistic to enliven your next dinner party.

Sleepy and hungry
So what do the survey results show? A white-collar workforce that is increasingly pressed for time, spends a long time commuting in difficult conditions, often on an empty stomach and with insufficient sleep, and with little time left for family communication.

Other studies are showing that young workers are becoming increasingly disenchanted with this salaryman lifestyle. Since this segment is a declining percentage of the overall workforce population-but comprises the majority of employees in the wired New Economy-the ability to attract (and retain) young workers will become an increasingly critical task for management. Flex-time, SOHO, greater responsibility at a younger age, less rigid dress codes, well-designed pay-for-performance systems, and stock options are some of the tools that may be of use in this regard.

William Hall is president of the RBC Group which provides market research and consulting services to foreign clients in Tokyo.

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