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Culture and Business: A Marketer’s Observations of Japan

Tokyo city illuminated at sunset

By Paul Provost

As marketers, we spend a lot of time defining audiences, and with good reason — without this understanding, we’re on unstable ground. This is especially true doing business in foreign countries.

I had the opportunity to take a personal trip to Japan with my wife last month, and it got me thinking about culture and business. Here are a handful of observations from my time there:


Japan is a country of 125 million fit into a country half the size of my home province of Manitoba, which only hosts one million people in its 647,000km2. The sheer number of buildings and people in the country has dramatic impacts on infrastructure, transportation, lifestyle, and culture.


From what I saw on the street, very few people used colour in their wardrobe. Most wore shades of black, white, and sometimes brown or beige with the occasional accent color. I can imagine how international fashion brands might need to adapt to local tastes.

North American Influence

While many sectors seem entirely untouched by North America, many youth seek North American vintage clothing and popular brands like the Yankees, Snoopy, 7 Eleven, and Starbucks.

Japanese business has also taken the 24-hour convenience store — a North American invention — and developed and improved it for the local market. Domestic chains like Lawson, 7-Eleven and Family Mart host impressively high-quality snacks and meals to go, among other things.


Food in Japan was a priority; quality nutrition and limitations on fast food, preservatives or “unhealthy snacks”  seemed evident. Most dishes included a balanced amount of protein (often fish), vegetables, and carbs (often rice), and all included water (often tea). Portions were generally smaller than in North America. Quality of food and nutrition is clearly a priority for the country and something that neither government nor citizens seek to change.

Retail and Business

Retail shopping did not seem to have moved online as much as in North America. Also notable were the small businesses and restaurants that proliferated in most places, with international chains visible at times but far from dominating. The environment is clearly favourable to local business.

What Does This All Mean?

When you’re doing business globally, understanding your new market before you enter is crucial. Local audience needs and desires are necessarily different.

Everything from brand colours and visuals to key messages to store size and product selection should be carefully planned and adapted to local context, and this often requires enlisting a partner to guide you along the path over months of careful preparation.

Japan is a world away from North America in many ways, but at our core, humans are more similar than we are different, and a solid product has a fighting chance in most places. As marketers and business professionals, we just need to make sure we’re prepared to go the distance.