This article explores the deep commitment that Japan and the Japanese have to its consumers and looks at how businesses dedicate themselves to delivering goods and services that are as close to perfection as they can possibly be. We’ll also detail how this translates into being one of the world’s best experiences for consumers because Japanese products come from a place that is pledged to doing its best.
The root of Japanese culture
So, as we set off to explore, what better place is there to find a core example of this idea that with soccer.
Yes, soccer, because even if you don’t follow it as a sport, you’ve probably heard of the FIFA World Cup. Held every four years it is a month-long festival of football that crowns the best team as World Champions.
The 2018 tournament, just as at every other World Cup Japan has qualified for, saw the Japanese men’s team coming home earlier than they’d have liked, (The women’s team won the Women’s World Cup in 2011 — the year of the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake — and they were runners-up in 2015!) but even though the men’s team lost, after giving absolutely everything they had, they still made the headlines, and for all the right reasons.
And the reason why they received such deserved attention was this: They left their locker room spotlessly clean and a handwritten message that simply said ‘Spasibo’, Russian for ‘Thank you’. So, even though they lost, and had given their all, they stayed true to their values: They showed respect, gratitude and grace to their hosts, themselves and — here’s the really interesting part — their locker room.
Respect, Humility, Togetherness
Showing respect, humility and ‘togetherness’ is big in Japan. This is also true of Japan’s traveling fans, a bunch of die-hard soccer lovers who can always be seen hanging-back to clean up any one of the stadiums they’ve been using, a phenomenon that has gained international media coverage and plaudits from far and wide.
It is this order, ‘togetherness’ in behaviour, and a dedication to the “what” of who they are, which seems to be very much the ‘Japanese way’. And if you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit Japan you’ll know just how far these traits stand out. Trains on time to the second, cleanliness and hygiene everywhere, pride in every single job — be you a cleaner, clerk, bullet train driver or the CEO of a world-renowned company, everyone takes immense satisfaction in what they do and they do it properly.
Calm and disciplined — even in the face of terrible hardship (We didn’t see riots or a breakdown of social norms after the appalling weather and earthquakes this year) — and a dedication to doing things “right”; to attain the very best standards that they can in anything and everything they do.
Level of expectation: Atarimae
Such gestures of doing right to the best standards are taken to be an act of a-ta-ri-mae 当たり前（あたりまえ）by Japanese people — literally ‘something expected’ and ‘obvious’ but from a Japanese person’s perspective — and that’s the tricky bit to grasp if you aren’t Japanese. For example, it is expected that you clean up your locker room, even if you’re an international superstar soccer player. It’s common sense that when you pick up a lost wallet, stuffed full with thousands of dollars, that you hand it in at the nearest Police Box, just as you would if you found anything that wasn’t yours. Just as it’s obvious that, as a clerk, you express deep thanks to the customer who just bought something, it is simply the ‘natural course of doing things’.
A further example of atarimae is when an employee makes a mistake; here you will find that it is the company hierarchy that takes public responsibility for it, not the employee(s). A classic example is when a train on the Tsukuba Express line (Which runs between Tokyo and the city of Tsukuba, Ibaraki prefecture) arrived at a station and left 20 seconds early, the company quickly apologized for any inconvenience caused. In most any other country it’d be a cause for celebration, in Japan, it was a time of deep bows and furrowed brows.
It is these ‘ideas’, these fundamentals, which have come to see the establishment of Japan’s stamp of quality. In fact, we can break them down into two types of approach: atarimae hinshitsu and miryokuteki hinshitsu.
In the design of goods or services, it is the combination of these two elements that ensures all products will not only meet the customers’ expectations but also be desirable to have. Anything that doesn’t possess these qualities will undoubtedly be seen as inferior and less appealing than a product or service that does.
A-ta-ri-mae hin-shi-tsu 当たり前品質 (あたりまえひんしつ) is the idea that things will work as they are supposed to (e.g. a brush will paint). For example, a path or a shed have functional parts in a garden as a product; when the functionality is met, the atarimae quality requirement is also met.
Mi-ryo-ku-te-ki hin-shi-tsu 魅力的品質（みりょくてきひんしつ）is the idea that things should have an aesthetic quality which is different from atarimae hinshitsu (e.g. a brush will paint in a way that is pleasing to the viewer — or reader if it is a calligraphy brush — and leave behind paint or ink that is pleasing to the viewer/ reader). The path and shed example can be expanded to include the colour, texture, shape, finish, even the sound that footfall on the path — or the shed door on opening/closing — makes. These are the miryokuteki aspects. These ‘properties’ comprise a fundamental part of ‘The Quality’ and for the Japanese add value to any product or service.
Sho-ku–ni-n 職人（しょくにん）is a Japanese word that loosely translates as “artisan” or “craftsman”, but it is much more than that, it also connects to a spiritual aspect that the person who creates or performs something holds within them, a kind of awareness to do things as they should be done. It implies a pride in one’s own work. To strive to be the very best that one can be and to express that through the product they make or the work they do for the consumer.
To better understand what this means, let’s use shokunin Odate Tashio’s definition:
Shokunin means not only having a technical skill, but also involves an attitude and social consciousness… an obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people, an obligation both material and spiritual.
As you can see, there’s a depth and breadth beyond what we’d usually expect of a product’s manufacturer when we take shokunin into consideration. Traditional followers of shokunin would even honour the tools of their trade at New Year’s, with the well-cared-for tools being placed in a to-ko-no-ma 床の間 (とこのま) — a recessed space still found in some Japanese houses and businesses — adorned with two rice cakes and a Satsuma (on top of rice paper) placed on top of each in order to honour the tools and express gratitude to them for performing their task; for allowing the shokunin to — not only earn a living — but for also allowing the shokunin’s customers to cherish and admire the products the tools created.
In contemporary Japanese society this deeply rooted concept can be found everywhere you look and go. The way a bus driver goes through their checklist of things to be done before leaving from or pulling up to a stop, the attention to detail of the uniform they wear. The wrapping and care are given to any item you buy in any major department store such as Isetan, Odakyu or Takashimaya.
Honorific hospitality: Omotenashi
This saying – o-mo-te-na-shi お持て成し（おもてなし）- it is much more than just a word — came to prominence during Japan’s successful bid for the upcoming Summer Olympics, to be held in and around Tokyo in 2020. Yet, although the saying was new to international ears, the concept of hospitality in Japan has always been firmly established as “out of this world”. The stuff of legends.
In its basic form, mo-te-na-shi 持て成（もてなし）means hospitality, but when suffixed with お ‘o’ it makes the concept honorific. This means that the host is elevating the guest to a position higher than their own. It is selfless giving, providing service with the whole heart, an approach to ensure that any guest, tourist or consumer experiences no stress, discomfort or inconvenience.
Although obviously known in Japan — it wasn’t until French-Japanese television presenter Takigawa Kristel used the term (With accompanying hand gesture) when addressing the Olympic Committee in 2013 that its low profile was smashed apart, bringing it to the world’s attention. To such an extent did it take a hold of the Japanese’s idea of, ‘the need to welcome people visiting’, that it quickly became a buzzword of the year. (Japan holds a yearly competition for the ‘Words of the Year’ in December).
With omotenashi now an official policy of the Japanese Government — to establish Japan as a ‘tourism nation’ — there has never been a better time to visit the Land of the Rising Sun. In order to realize its objective, the government saw the need to improve the acceptance, support and understanding by the Japanese — throughout each region — of both international and domestic travellers. So it was that in 2014 the tourism agency began actively participating with regional and local tourism associations, working towards providing even more kindness, more excellence, more exemplary service. The consumer (and tourist), so it seems, really can do no wrong.
What is also particularly extraordinary is that there is no custom of tipping in Japan, which, when you think of the commitment given to ensure the customer, tourist or guest receives an acceptable level of omotenashi is mindboggling. Service isn’t given for monetary gain, but for the very act of doing it, of making someone feel good.
It isn’t all about the staff though, the tough standards wielded by customers in Japan creates a kind of self-perpetuating cycle, because companies know they have to deliver on the frontline, which raises the bar for entire industries, which in turn makes Japanese consumers’ expectations even higher. The effect is that bad service ceases being something people are reconciled to, and becomes a stain on the experience, and once bitten with poor service, Japanese customers, on the whole, never come back.
Peace of mind & safety: Anzen & Anshin
Then, even after such ‘beyond the norm’ efforts towards establishing excellence, perfection and dedication to the consumer, you must underline it all with the fact of ‘scientifically safe’ – an-ze-n 安全（あんぜん ）and an-shi-n 安心（あんしん）.
It has to be safe to eat, use, wear or even drive. It’s a critical concept for any Japanese product. If your product doesn’t hold the qualities of anzen it will have a tough sell in Japan. The same goes for anshin, or ‘peace of mind’; if you’re trying to sell something to one of the world’s most demanding customer bases, you better have anshin.
A Japanese consumer has to feel, to know, that the milk they are drinking, the car they are driving, the cold cream they’re putting on their face is produced to the very highest standards based on its qualities of established anzen because only then can you feel comfortable within the confines of anshin.
Effects on manufacturing
How do Japanese manufacturers do this? Through honesty, through years and decades of truthful commitment to promises they can keep, by not overstating what it is their product can do, but by simply stating facts. That’s why Japanese products can be trusted if a skincare lotion says it can tighten your skin’s elasticity, then it can. If a cream carry’s the promise of reducing a sunspot’s colour, it will. There’s also massive oversight from the government, as they have an obvious interest in keeping Japan.Plc’s reputation for quality and safety secure. An obvious concern for an economy that is so dependent on exports.
Effects on daily culture
Yet, due to educational approaches by Japanese society from the earliest of ages, the government’s job is made so much easier as — very much on the whole — people obey, do, and follow the rules, why? Because, as detailed earlier, it’s the ‘natural way of doing things’ it is ‘expected’ and ‘common sense’ it is atarimae. The road isn’t crossed when there’s not a vehicle in sight; it is crossed when the light is green for the pedestrian at the designated place on the pavement. The train isn’t boarded as people are getting off; it’s boarded when the door is clear at the designated place on the platform. There’s a metaphysical manual of how to do everything and lo-behold any that choose to ignore it. Group pressure and a discerning ‘tut’ from society (If not a sucking of teeth) will soon see you back in line doing things ‘right’.
There’s no need for regulators to be constantly pushing, warning, and nudging people – read industry – to get them to do what is right, which in turn ensures products are what they are. It also releases a drive amongst Japanese businesses to keep striving to create improved products, to keep an edge, to be better. For a cleanser that cleanses deeper, for a cream that truly gives you smooth skin, for medical equipment that will undoubtedly be one of the best on the market.
This ‘quality assurance’ is built into the system and very rarely finds itself on the wrong end of a news story. This guaranteed anzen is why we can all relax and feel anshin when we buy and use Japanese products for our beauty and health regimes.
Delivering the goods
And what better demonstration is there of all these concepts coming together and delivering success than in the constant top-rated marks Japan gets as a tourist destination. The satisfaction meter is always pinging of its approval as tens of millions of content customers of Japan.Plc give their feedback at the exit, eager to get back for more. If you want proof of the pudding, tourists consistently give Japan top marks for its service, ‘welcome’ and attention to detail.
Then there’s Japan as an actual global brand, not many countries can claim to be a ‘Here and Now’ brand unto themselves, but Japan can. Read ‘Japan’ and you know that what you are buying is going to be of the highest quality, safe and ready to deliver exactly what you are looking for from a product.
So with this combined understanding of how Japanese industry approaches the creation of any product or service — with a depth of commitment to expressing their very best through that product or service — you can now see what it is that makes ‘Made in Japan’ so attractive.
As a consumer, you are essentially guaranteed the very best in quality. In short, if you buy Japanese, you’re investing in the whole idea as outlined above, of investing in what goes into the making of a Japanese product: A dedication to being as perfect as possible.
What more, as a consumer, could you possibly ask for?