Perfectionism at Heart of Japanese Culture Will Drive Effort to Rebuild

Is Making the Group Whole Again More Important Than Personal Concerns?

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Around the 13th of every month for the last three years I have sent out a newsletter to clients, colleagues and friends around the world called "Japan&Change." It started when I was constantly being asked to give talks to visitors about why they should take Japan seriously any more. The newsletter is a compilation of stories from Japan's business press, economic data and things we hear from ordinary Japanese people as they talk to us in our McCann Pulse program about their lives, desires, fears and hopes.

Of course, the intent was always to remind anyone interested that while Japan had its problems, the country remains a fabulous source of innovation, inspiration and many unique companies leading all sorts of industries globally.

We called it Japan&Change because we found that people of all ages were telling us they were really anxious about their lives in Japan. Not because of the continuing post-bubble years' economic malaise, but because they could see the country changing in many ways and wanted to be sure how they could fit in.

In the 20 years since that golden bubble burst, there has been a lot of change. Much has been good. In our bi-annual survey of what words people use to describe their own lives and immediate future, we found over the last seven years an increasing use of the word "freedom." Maybe not freedom as you would assume wherever you may live. But from their own perspective. For women entering the work force and finding role models. Or a new father free to spend more time with his child than his own salary-man father. Or a Japanese baby boomer "dankei" in the country with the longest post-retirement lives in the world, including pretty good pensions.

Of course that freedom might be small, and none of it was universal. But we constantly heard enough people talking about and appreciating change to say that there was something that maybe economics was missing. And that in truth Japan was a real source of "newness" and change that was maybe under-appreciated by marketers in their rush to fall in love with the "hotter" markets of the world.

There was no Japan&Change on March 13. We had written it. Ito-san, my brilliant head of insights in Japan, had sent me the draft. I played with it. We talked about the right quotes to add. But mid-afternoon on Friday, March 12, it got shelved.

We huddled on the floor of our 20th-floor office, watching the faces of colleagues who have grown up with the weekly tremors that are life in Tokyo going through by far the worst earthquake they had felt. Getting everyone out and accounted for. Worrying about family and friends, getting home in a frozen city, discovering gradually the devastation in northern Honshu, and trying to find out who had relatives there. Things changed. And in the days since, the story has only become increasingly tense. The constant aftershocks, the continuing news of more nuclear threats, the loss of basic services, including the world's most dependable transportion systems not having the power to work. The news just gets worse.

And then you look around and see what makes Japan great. Of course it's easy for a foreigner to talk of a group ethic, communal responsibility, calm stoicism and extreme politeness. These last six days have been testament to me that these are more real than I could ever imagine. One senior colleague explained to me the other day that "Westerners and Japanese react differently to crisis; we worry about making the group whole again more than our personal concerns." An exaggeration maybe. But then another colleague reminded me of his experience living through the earthquake that devastated Kobe over a decade ago. It was estimated that 12% of the GDP was destroyed in a few minutes, and it would take 10 years to rebuild and recover. It took 18 months. That's living proof that even in a post-bubble Japan, the country could still show the world it could do amazing things.

Who knows what the terrible events of this last week will add up to. Of course I hope that a country I have come to love has suffered enough. What I do know is that my Japanese friends will re-focus, re-innovate and re-build. The perfectionism that is really at the heart of Japanese culture will not allow them to do anything else. And so what we will see is not so much change as a continual transformation as "Japan Re-Builds."

Dave McCaughan is the Tokyo-based regional strategic planning director at McCann WorldGroup Asia Pacific.
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