Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2000

Yearning for Lifelong Learning
Desire for self-improvement in Japan presents major business opportunities.

by William Hall

Nureochiba (wet fallen leaf):
a term increasingly used by older Japanese housewives to describe retired husbands who hang around the house all day and get in the way. (If you try to sweep up a wet leaf, it sticks to the ground and is difficult to remove.) The Japanese housewife has usually run the household single-handedly for the duration of the marriage (see Japan Studies, April 2000) and has developed her own outside interests and independent circle of friends in the absence of her husband.

In contrast, the Japanese male at retirement will have devoted almost 40 years of his life to his company, and developed few or no outside interests. And now (often suddenly in these days of forced early retirement), the Japanese male finds himself sitting at home with nothing to do, in a house hardly large enough to swing a cat in, facing another 20 years of such existence. Time to get a hobby or go bonkers!

For the middle-aged employee who learnt almost nothing at university (except perhaps how to play mahjong) and who joined a large company expecting to be trained as a generalist by the company over the period of a life-time career, things have suddenly started to look somewhat grim. The vaunted lifetime employment system is rapidly eroding, pay by seniority is being replaced by pay-for-performance, and companies are increasingly looking for specialists. Time to get some additional qualifications!

For others, there is a need or desire to learn how to use a computer, to be able to converse in English, to learn how to care for frail or bedridden aging parents, and so on. In all of the above cases the acquisition of a new or improved skill or interest comes at a later stage in life, usually well after graduation from college or high school.

For a society in transition such as Japan, access to and involvement in lifelong learning is critical. And for the smart marketer, there should be solid business opportunities in this field. So what lifelong-learning activities is the average Japanese currently involved in, and how does he/she view these activities?

In March 2000, the Secretariat of the Prime Minister's Office announced the results of a survey entitled "Opinion Poll in Regard to Lifelong Learning." An earlier study was conducted on this topic in February 1992, and provides useful data for assessing change in the intervening years. The current study involved completed personal interviews with 3,448 randomly selected Japanese nationals (1,541 males and 1,907 females) aged 20 years and above. Fieldwork for the study was conducted in December 1999.

In Japanese, lifelong learning is known as shogai gakushu (pronounced "show-guy gah-koo-shoo"). In the study, lifelong learning was defined as follows -- various activities, such as hobbies, volunteer activities, cultural activities, sports, study, et cetera, that an individual carries out on his/her own initiative at different periods in his/her life in order to live a more rich and happy life.

Respondents were then shown a card listing nine broad categories of lifelong learning and asked which of these, if any, they'd been involved in within the past year. Forty-five percent of respondents had engaged in such activities within the past year, a slight decline from the figure of 48% recorded seven years earlier. The major activities were Hobbies/Interests and Health/Sports, and there are significant differences between the percentage of males and females involved in certain activities. (See Table 1.) The percentage of respondents involved in each category was similar to that of the earlier study.

js table 1

The 40 years and over group had a higher involvement in health and sports activities than those below 40. Conversely, the younger age group, primarily females, had more involvement in activities to improve Home Skills. Note also that learning a foreign language such as English, with 3%, was the lowest scoring among all nine categories, not a particularly auspicious omen for a country desirous of having English as the second language (see Japan Studies, May 2000).

Those not doing lifelong-learning activities were asked why. By far the largest reason was lack of time (59%). There are significant differences by age in response to this question. As might be expected, older retired persons were less pressed for time (73% of those aged 30-59 claimed not to have time to do lifelong learning activities compared to 49% for those in their sixties and 25% in their seventies).

Sixty-four percent of total respondents stated that they would like to do some lifelong-learning activity in the future, essentially unchanged from the 66% figure in the 1992 study. Major reasons for wanting to do lifelong learning varied significantly by sex and age. Females are more interested than males in Make Hobby More Rich/Rewarding, Deepening Relationships/Friendships With Others, Wanting the Activity to Be Significant in One's Old Age, and To Make Home and Daily Life Better. Older respondents tend to be more interested than younger respondents in Improve Health/Stamina and Wanting the Activity to Be Significant in Old Age. In contrast, younger respondents were more interested than older respondents in Acquiring High Level Specialist Skill and Be Useful in Current Job or in Looking for New Job. (See Table 2 below.)

Reason (see right) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1. Make Hobby More Rich/Rewarding
2. To Deepen Relationships With Others/To Make Friends
3. To Improve Health/Stamina
4. Want Activity to Be Significant in My Old Age
5. To Become More Well-Cultured
6. To Use Free Time Effectively
7. To Make Home and Daily Life Better
8. To Keep Up With Advances in Society/Know What Is Going On in the World
9. To Acquire High Level Specialist Skill/Knowledge
10. To Be Useful in My Current Job or in Looking for New Employment
Total (%) 57 39 39 38 33 31 21 17 16 15
20-29 53 28 35 8 42 32 11 11 28 30
30-39 59 23 33 19 37 24 11 12 25 36
40-49 57 33 37 28 31 27 14 21 26 27
50-59 51 39 37 35 32 30 19 16 20 15
60-69 54 32 43 50 30 26 23 21 15 13
70+ 40 40 42 45 22 23 14 15 7 4
20-29 66 37 29 15 47 34 21 11 20 27
30-39 62 47 37 26 40 35 26 13 18 19
40-49 60 46 40 45 31 37 23 18 9 8
50-59 58 43 38 55 32 33 29 21 13 9
60-69 59 44 46 51 31 30 23 17 7 7
70+ 51 43 46 59 25 27 19 23 5 --

Respondents were asked whether they had any requests/wishes in regard to public facilities used for lifelong learning such as libraries and museums. While the questions are geared towards public facilities, the responses provide some useful hints for private enterprise offering lifelong learning activities. The main responses were Be Able to Use Late at Night and on Holidays (40%), Increase Events/Lectures That Anyone Can Attend Freely With a Feeling of Ease (34%), Have a Specialist Available Whom One Can Talk to Freely About Lifelong Learning (17%), and Improve Information Availability by Increasing Number of Computers Available and Freedom to Use Them (16%).

Respondents were then asked specifically about requests they had in regard to computers, videos, and other IT equipment used in public facilities for lifelong learning. The main responses received were the following -- Have/Increase Persons Available Who Can Provide Detailed Explanations on How to Use the Equipment (26%), Provide Facility to Gather Information From Other Organizations via the Internet (19%), Provide/Increase Lectures on How to Use IT Equipment (19%), Increase the Amount of IT Equipment Available (17%), and Provide a Detailed Manual on How to Use the Equipment (15%). The interest in and level of response to this question on IT equipment was highest among the 20-49 years group, and declined rapidly thereafter with age. As we have seen in an earlier article (Japan Studies, May 2000), the digital divide in Japan is becoming generational in nature rather than being driven by income and education levels.

Finally, respondents were asked whether they thought Japan should change from a society that tends to attach great importance to the academic record obtained in one's youth to a society that attaches importance to and correctly evaluates actual ability irrespective of when and where such ability was obtained. A majority of respondents (53%) Agree (and a further 34% Somewhat Agree) with this statement. Only 38% gave Agree as a response in 1992, and this 15% increase therefore represents a major and significant societal shift over a relatively short period.

So what does it all mean? First of all, there is significant activity already under way in lifelong learning in Japan, and the lifelong-learning market can be expected to increase in the future. Second, there are discrete market segments -- females, males, young, old, and so on -- and each of these is of significant size. Data from studies conducted by RBC indicate that an average Japanese is prepared to spend around yen;5,000 a month on a hobby/interest. Multiply that by 12, and you have spending of roughly $600 a year. And pick up 100,000 customers out of a total population of 120 million, and you quickly have a $60 million business.

Third, for all market segments except for the retired, long commutes and long working hours make shortage of time a critical issue. Courses over the Internet provide a solution to this time bind. In a recent lifelong-learning project conducted by RBC, discrete from the merits/demerits of the specific product being tested, the amount of time saved by using the Internet was a highly attractive feature. The traditional approach to attending a lesson involves walking to the train station, waiting for the train, walking to the school from the train station, waiting for the lesson to begin, walking back to the train, et cetera. Compare that to the convenience of logging on from one's home at a time of one's choice.

In summary, opportunities abound in Japan for combining lifelong-learning activities and the New Economy. However, suppliers of such services need to be careful that they don't get "napsterized," as is currently occurring in the needlepoint-pattern industry in the US, where needlepoint-loving grandmothers have begun swapping copyrighted patterns over the Internet.

William Hall (williamh@isisresearch.com) is president of the ISIS/RBC/CORAL Group, which provides market research and consulting services in Tokyo.

Note: Last month, the numbers in Table 3 were misaligned. The online version has been corrected.

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