Japan has the lowest level of trust in institutions and is the most pessimistic of all markets surveyed in Edelman’s global Trust Barometer, a study that canvassed 33,000 respondents across 28 countries.
Just 19 percent of Japan’s informed public and 15 percent of the mass population believe that they will be better off in five years’ time, according to the results. That compares with 73 and 69 percent respectively in China, and 87 and 83 percent respectively in India.
Japan also remains highly sceptical of institutions, and trust has failed to rebound following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake — although in most cases it has risen slightly.
Business remains the most trusted out of the four main institutions featured in the study, the others being government, media and NGOs: 43 percent of the general population trust the business sector, up three points on 2015.
However, trust among the informed public fell three points to 45 percent, and the other sectors are gaining ground. Trust in government rose to 41 percent and 39 percent among the informed and mass population respectively.
It still has some way to go before it reaches the pre-2011 earthquake trust level of 51 percent, but the figures suggest people still have faith in prime minister Shinzo Abe’s politics.
Trust in NGOs rose 11 points to 40 percent among the informed public, while trust in media increased by eight points across the board to 38 percent among the general population and 39 percent among the informed public.
Encouragingly for the commercial sector, business was shown to be the most trusted to keep pace with changing times: 50 percent of the informed public and 45 percent of the general population have faith in its abilities, compared to just 32 and 29 percent respectively for government and 34 and 36 percent for media.
At the same time, Japan is sceptical about business’s ability to lead economic and social improvements.
Just 56 percent think it can, compared to 80 percent globally (up from 74 percent last year). Together, the findings suggest an opportunity for business to collaborate more closely with other institutions such as government to work to improve society, said Ross Rowbury, president of Edelman Japan.
In terms of overall trust in the four institutions, a big gap is apparent globally between the informed public and the wider population. Trust stands at 60 and 48 percent respectively. In Japan on the other hand, the figures are 41 and 38 percent respectively—a gap of just three points.
Ben Boyd, Edelman’s New York-based president of practices, sectors and offerings, who presented the findings in Japan, said that while Japan is an "outlier market" in the survey, "everyone seems cynical together".
Rowbury said that while a number of people likely think Abe is "doing a good job" as prime minister and acknowledge that "Japan is starting to crawl back onto the world stage", they don’t necessarily see a long-term solution in it for their personal circumstances.
He noted that Japan’s aging society remained an obvious concern, that Japanese people generally tended "to be more pessimistic about their lot" than other Asian markets, and that while Japan’s position appears positive to the outside world, the tone of the media internally is often somewhat negative.
The earthquake brought about a "total reset", Rowbury said, so it is likely to take some time for positive sentiment to fully return.
Cause for optimism
It’s not all doom and gloom. Japan’s national brand was shown to be strong internationally, with Chinese trust in Japanese companies up significantly to 56 percent from 43 percent last year.
The belief in the ability of business to stay on the cusp of change was encouraging too. Yet employee trust in their own companies was strikingly low — again the lowest of all markets.
Just 40 percent of Japanese compared with 65 percent of global respondents said they trust the company they work for. The finding is starkly at odds with the typical image of the masochistic salaryman, but Edelman said companies have the chance to turn things around by tweaking their practices.
"You’ve got an increasingly connected global marketplace, a powerful national brand, and belief that business is poised to keep pace," Boyd said.
"It’s a question of can business acknowledge that as an operating reality and break from the past and engage disillusioned employees as advocates for their mission."
Encouraging companies to seek guidance in internal communications and employee engagement is of course squarely in a PR agency’s interests, but Boyd’s point is valid nonetheless.
Employees were shown to be the most trusted spokespeople when it comes to communicating financial and performance matters, business practice and crisis handling, and employee and customer treatment.
"It’s a pretty low bar in a market like this," said Boyd. "It’s not a revolution that needs to happen in terms of internal communications. It’s basic. It just begins with explaining and engaging.
"It’s not about a multimillion dollar portal — we may be having that sort of conversation in the US, but what’s important here is consistency of engagement that’s sincere and from the top."
Circling back to the potential for companies to work with other sectors to improve society is the finding that employee advocacy increases greatly with societal issue engagement.
As an example, 73 percent said they then feel committed to achieving company strategy, as opposed to 41 percent at a company with no societal engagement; 69 percent versus 46 percent said they feel motivated to perform.
"One of the biggest challenges is that leaders in business didn’t get to the corner office by necessarily being great communicators," said Boyd. "Their job now is a lot harder. They still have to be master of margin, but also inspirer of employee."