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The Japanese narrative: re-defining a national identity

The Japanese narrative: re-defining a national identity

Sakiko Suga

In an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Guy Ritchie said he believed every movie’s storyline boils down to protagonists battling to define their personal narrative. Out in the real world, it’s more of a two-way street: people identify us in a certain way because of markers we display, but our own egos make us distinguish ourselves in another, sometimes contrasting, light. It’s only when we find the places where these narratives converge that we start to understand our true identity.

One of the core markers society uses to determine identity is place. When meeting someone new, it’s second nature to ask “Where are you from?” Your place of birth, ethnicity and race become lenses people use to discover who you are. As a result, the notion of place is profoundly bound to our sense of self.

I’m a “third culture kid” (TCK) – someone who builds their identity based on all the cultures they have experienced, yet doesn’t have ownership of any. I have spent a proportion of my childhood in a culture very different to that of my parents, which means I’ve experienced conflicting identities, attitudes and ideals while attempting to define my own narrative. Although elements from the places I have lived are assimilated into my life experience (both personal and professional), my sense of belonging is often thrown off course. I am essentially rootless. And this continually forces me to ask, what could my own narrative possibly be?

Pride of place

Many people aren’t left so confused and take pride in their “home” town, city or country – actively expressing themselves through such associations. This helps shape strong national identities. And nowhere takes its national identity more seriously than Japan.

Throughout history, Japan has been characterised by its homogeneity, its traditions and its systematic approach to work. These strands are woven into the country’s make-up to create a very specific “Japaneseness”. National pride for these characteristics manifests itself as the foundation of Japanese identity and, as a result, individualism is minimised.

As a TCK I’ve been able to see Japan’s narrative from the outside – and I don’t think it’s quite right. The world’s current view of Japan doesn’t include subtle yet vital elements that I believe make the country so special. The nation is in need of a modern, universally-accepted “story” that’s realised in this globalised, hyperconnected world. One that confidently projects Japan’s cultural complexities, and, most importantly, one that the Japanese can be proud of.

Penning a new story

So, how do we achieve this? Firstly, education.

We need to stand up and tell the world what Japanese culture is really about, in a way the world can understand – we need to take “brand Japan” to the next level. But we must avoid falling into the trap of doing this in a superficial way (think beyond cherry blossoms and geishas) and instead present other, more complex elements of Japanese culture. Why do the Japanese bathe at night? Why do we have indoor slippers and “toilet slippers”? Why is it prestigious to slurp soba noodles? I’m not saying we should lose all the traditional elements of our national identity in the process of rewriting our narrative, but we need to move the story on. Groups like The Japan Society London are already setting these wheels in motion.

Japanese businesses could also start using TCKs and their worldviews to help communicate some of these lesser-known Japanese “traditions” to the wider corporate world. Although certain Japanese mangas present TCKs, unrealistically, as super-kids, our knowledge is a secret weapon Japanese businesses could use – partly because of our bilingual abilities, but also because we can provide a unique “insider’s perspective” of the international business community. Being raised in a multitude of societies and cultures means we are natural chameleons who can blend in and clearly understand varied business behaviours and customs. Maybe we are super-kids after all.

Cross-cultural co-creation

Second, Japan needs to become more open and willing to collaborate. With consumers, with businesses – and with other countries.

Increasingly, global businesses are recognising that consumers today play a role in production and consumption. Products should no longer be about creating value for the consumer, but instead, value should be co-created with the consumer; the market becomes a forum where consumers can say what they are willing to pay for. And, as they are being actively involved, the end product will hold more value in their eyes. As the consumer and the firm create value together, the co-creation experience then becomes the very basis of value itself.

By embedding a solid infrastructure for co-creation with foreign investors and partners, Japan can create unique value within its business landscape, enabling it to keep pace – and even lead. External “consumer” opinions and inputs will be recognised in active, two-way conversations and, little by little, woven into Japan’s business culture.

Doing our bit

We must also remember that we can't expect Japan to do all the work. The rest of the world also needs to play its part. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a definitive list of answers. But I can tell you what not to do.

Don’t think that Japan works like everywhere else – it’s a unique market. There are more users on Twitter than on Facebook, for instance, and the elderly exercise more than the young. Japan is a different animal. But companies and agencies regularly fail to recognise this. Brands that have exploded in the rest of the world (Uber, Airbnb, Spotify and Deliveroo) haven’t achieved the same success in Japan because they failed to adapt to the way the Japanese do business. We cannot be blind to the fact that what might work in other countries or continents may not work in Japan. And we cannot be too proud to adapt and modify our business models and ways of working accordingly.

When you’re delivering design assets, for example, don’t forget that localisation is everything. You can’t just export an approach you know and love and expect it to click into place. It’s essential that creative organisations adapt their work so that it speaks specifically to Japanese audiences and markets. Don’t be too stubborn to adjust graphics, modify content and tweak your layout. Every element needs to look and feel as though it was created specifically for the Japanese market.

It goes without saying that how we say things is as important as what we say – but this is even more crucial when communicating with a Japanese audience. The country has a high-context culture, meaning it relies heavily on subtle, non-verbal communication (e.g. facial expressions and delicate shifts in tone of voice). Deep, personal relationships are paramount and traditions are often used to decode messages. Failing to understand these nuances often leads to misunderstandings when dealing with Western companies.

At The Frameworks, we recognise that we cannot communicate effectively if we aren't prepared to adapt. So, we’ve been working on some exciting new plans and partnerships that will help us expand our capabilities across Japan (watch this space for an announcement next year). Piece by piece, we will help Japan write its new story – but we can’t do it alone. A story this important needs everyone to come together and play their part. To shape a cultural exchange that is genuine and worthwhile, in Japan and beyond.

Hopeful futures

Maybe Guy Ritchie is right. As a TCK, my narrative has always been complex – embedded in multiple places and cultures – and up until now I’ve been battling to identify who I really am. However, I’m starting to realise that by becoming an active participator in Japan’s quest for a new narrative, I may find the meaning I’ve always been searching for. I guess I’ll only know once I'm content with the way Japan is being shaped. But what I know right now is that Japan should seize this opportunity to truly redefine what it means to be Japanese today. And tell that story with pride.