Sleeping giant Japan is about to wake up

It would be presumptuous to draw definitive conclusions from a short visit, but the last few days in Japan have yielded some interesting impressions of the communications market in the third-largest economy in the world.

It would be presumptuous to draw definitive conclusions from a short visit, but the last few days in Japan have yielded some interesting impressions of the communications market in the third-largest economy in the world.

That last point is particularly worth bearing in mind. It is often forgotten that Japan is such an economic superpower, behind only the United States and China in the global pecking order.

Everyone has heard of Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Sony, Toshiba, and Hitachi, but what about Japan Post Holdings (the privatized national postal service and number 9 on the Fortune Global 500 list), NTT (telephony), JX Holdings (formerly Nippon Oil), and Nippon Life Insurance, all Fortune 100 global companies, and some of the 68 Japanese businesses in the Fortune Global 500 – second only to the US.

It is ironic, and slightly shocking, that last year's earthquake and tsunami on 3/11 served actually to remind the world of Japan's existence in an era where aggressive high-growth countries such as China and Korea have tended to overshadow the strength of Asia's first developed and mature economy.

Indeed, that is the driver for global growth, as super-aggressive players including Samsung, LG, and Hyundai in Korea and numerous less-well-known Chinese conglomerates try to eat Japan's lunch.

It is forcing Japanese business to be more outward-looking and to consider the way it communicates to global audiences. But Japan does have distinct advantages. According to Shin Tanaka, former senior communicator at Honda and now president of Fleishman-Hillard Japan, of the 10,000 companies in the world that have the potential to go global in terms of quality products and competitiveness, half of them are Japanese, compared to just 2,000 in the US, and 1,000 in China.

A lot of Japanese companies haven't had to look beyond their home market in the past 30 years and that has made them complacent on the global front, but they are used to dealing with demanding customers and their businesses are extremely mature and evolved – unlike China for instance, which is still experiencing birthing pains.

That represents a big opportunity for Japanese business, but also a massive communications opportunity, as these companies figure out how to tell their stories on the global stage. The established global brands and the Japanese divisions of multinational companies tend to concentrate significant amounts of their communications operations in-house.

In truth, it is often difficult for large companies to find PR agencies in Japan that meet their needs. Rather than strategic consultancy, much of existing Japanese PR is still concentrated around media relations and events, especially given the continued strength of mainstream media such as TV and newspapers.

TV is super-powerful and the top five newspapers – Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Nikkei, Sankei Shimbun, and Yomiuri Shimbun – reach tens of millions of readers between them, often publishing two editions a day. There is also a vibrant regional and local print media.

Unlike in most regions, social media is not yet the dominant topic of conversation on everybody's lips, although Facebook is starting to gather considerable momentum and take over from the likes of Twitter and homegrown networks including Mixi.

On the PR agency side, the market is split into the Japanese arms of the big global networks, with Fleishman-Hillard and Weber Shandwick probably the strongest players; homegrown Japanese agencies such as PRAP and Kyodo PR; the PR arms of advertising behemoths Dentsu and Hakuhodo; smaller homegrown agencies such as Cosmo; and strategic consultancies including Kreab Gavin Anderson and Ashton Consulting.

PR also has not been an acknowledged force or profession in Japan up to now. But it is a fascinating market and has the potential to explode on the global stage.

Sure, there are lingering issues in Japan around transparency, corporate governance, and trust, but it would behoove the big global agency networks to concentrate a little more of their resources on this mature, evolved landscape rather than directing all their Asian efforts into China and India.

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