Understanding the Japanese Consumer: Key Insights and Buying Behaviours

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Before choosing to sell your product or service in the Japanese market, it’s essential to understand the nuances behind Japanese consumer psychology. There are many aspects to consider that can boost appeal and trust in your brand, especially as a foreign business. This article will provide an overview of some of the key points to remember.

Most consumers in Japan are aged between 15-64

Japan has the world’s largest elderly population, with 29% of citizens aged over 65 as of 2022. 59% are aged between 15-64, and the average consumer age in Japan is 49. This means that the middle-aged demographic bracket is a key target audience across all categories. What’s more, single households are also on the rise, making up roughly 35% of the total residences in Japan.
When it comes to the elderly population in particular, products and services that focus on improved health and well-being are popular, such as those related to; gut health, exercise, and mental clarity.
The number of households occupied by couples without children is also increasing (comprising around 60% of the total). In short, the demographic makeup of Japan represents a higher demand for products and services aimed at individuals and those aged 50 and over.
Japanese people are living longer, so naturally even from middle age there is a strong onus on protecting physical and mental health as a preventative measure. This means that brands operating in the wellness sector, or that have developed tech related to healthcare can especially enjoy opportunities to thrive in the Japanese market.

Brand loyalty is still king, but waning in favour of greater affordability

For years, Japanese consumers have tended to purchase from preferred, trusted brands. This is still largely the case, but more recently, due to the economic slowdown, this sentiment has tapered off and marketplaces filled with cheaper items from challenger brands have started to occupy more space in the minds of Japanese consumers.
Some examples of such challenger brands are also those gaining significant popularity worldwide, such as Chinese marketplaces Temu (which launched in Japan in January 2023), and SHEIN (the brand’s first physical store opened in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku neighbourhood in November 2022).
Levels of brand loyalty now vary depending on consumer demographic. On the one hand, the older generation still seeks out familiar brand names, while younger consumers are driven by various factors, including; low price points, unique lesser-known brands, and limited-edition goods worthy of sharing with their social media followers and friends. SHEIN, for instance, has so far seen greater popularity among female teenagers in Japan who are especially knowledgeable about, and influenced by, the latest trends.
The power of collaborating with popular online influencers in Japan as a way of gaining exposure and aligning themselves with a trusted figurehead should not be underestimated. It’s worth noting that while there are many people who are influencers in their own right such as YouTuber Hikakin (who has more than 11 million followers), many key influencers across social media are already established and popular actors or singers. These individuals are often referred to as tarento (an affectionate term for a celebrity with multiple strings to their bow).
It’s worth noting, however, that for foreign SMEs, this may be a rather costly option and as a result preference may be given to well-established national brands.

Customer service remains a top priority

Despite the recent shift in brand loyalty, Japanese consumers still expect high standards when it comes to customer support, no matter how luxurious or budget-friendly a product or service is.
From convenience stores to specialist jewellery retailers, company representatives must be able to resolve issues that arise in a timely manner, and with a good command of Japanese. At the same time, it’s imperative to offer a warm and considerate approach while ensuring complete overall customer satisfaction from start to finish. This also stretches beyond the initial transaction into after-sales customer support.
If something unexpected happens with an order, representatives are expected to do everything in their power to amend the situation so as not to erode brand trust. Given the emphasis on customer service, it’s inevitable that foreign companies have to work a little harder to align themselves with these high standards Japanese consumers rely on daily. This includes; hiring native Japanese staff to attend to customer enquiries, and training any non-Japanese staff in local customer relationship building. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Japanese consumers’ decision-making process can be long

With overall product quality and customer service being crucial aspects, it’s common for Japanese consumers to request detailed information before making a final purchase decision. They are intentional and cautious about spending their hard-earned money, so they don’t like to make rash decisions that could lead to poor outcomes.
For this reason, websites, social media channels, TV ads, and even in-person sales representatives need to be able to communicate a high level of knowledge about a product or service. Outside Japan, there is often a focus on communicating how a product will positively impact the consumer’s life.
This remains to be the case in Japan, but it’s also crucial to clearly describe specific practical aspects such as; operating instructions, and listing out all ingredients or materials used in the product. Including as much information as possible will help to boost overall consumer trust in a brand.
There is also a strong tendency towards checking ranking and review websites, such as cosme.net (for cosmetics and skincare) and category ranking charts on e-commerce sites including Rakuten and Amazon Japan. These remain extremely popular sales channels and rankings can have a significant influence on purchasing decisions among Japanese consumers.
In short, Japanese consumers know that if a product is consistently selling well and garnering many positive reviews from other verified customers, the quality is deemed to be high and, as a result, they may be more likely to complete their purchase.

Mascots: Japan’s soft power marketing tools

When it comes to raising brand awareness, nothing is more uniquely Japanese than promotions that use mascots and brand characters. Cute creatures aren’t just permanent fixtures cheering on teams at sports events or representing the various prefectures, they’re also commonly associated with other categories, from electronics right through to food products.
Domo-kun, a fluffy brown monster, is broadcaster NHK’s mascot created in 1998. Nissin Foods has a chick (Hiyoko-chan) as its mascot, and Otōsan is a white Hokkaido dog who has been featured across commercials and promotions for mobile carrier SoftBank since 2007.

NHK’s Domo-kun. Source: Medium

Although these examples relate to national Japanese companies, mascots can be effective for foreign businesses too. Zespri’s ‘Kiwi Brothers’ are representative of this, promoting kiwi fruit in Japan through the use of specially designed kiwi characters. It’s worth noting that Kiwi Brothers were created with Japan in mind and have become immensely popular as a result, even among those who aren’t fans of the fruit. Still, it helps to keep the brand top-of-mind within the fruit category.

Zespri’s Kiwi Brothers. Source: YouTube (translation: “you can be healthy while doing the things you enjoy”)

Provide thoughtful packaging to deliver stronger appeal

The way in which a product is packaged can make a huge difference to Japanese consumers’ desire to purchase. This is especially the case since Japan has an inherent culture of gift-giving among friends, family, neighbours, and co-workers. Product packaging should have a blend of; practicality, informativeness, and attractiveness in equal measure.
In addition, consideration should be given to how the product might be wrapped with the final recipient in mind – particularly if it’s intended as a gift rather than for personal use. Presentation and overall aesthetics are often key in Japan, because surface impressions really matter when it comes to strengthening relationships with others. This also ties into the rigorous quality standards that Japanese consumers expect all-round.
Despite the importance of product presentation, in recent years there has also been a greater drive to provide more options that consider the environmental impact, particularly for single-use plastics. Japan has the world’s second-highest level of plastic waste per person, so brands are increasingly keen to address this while also finding ways to maintain the standards of quality that Japanese consumers expect. For instance, major beverage manufacturers like Coca-Cola, Suntory, and Asahi now offer label-free PET drink bottles in supermarkets and convenience stores.

Seasonal opportunities are rife in Japan

Japanese consumers tend to love a special offer, and there’s rarely a more timely occasion to run a promotional campaign than leading up to a popular seasonal celebration. There are many chances to reach customers in Japan when they are most likely to be searching for something special that will help them to feel a part of the festivities.
Most of the seasonal occasions we might also celebrate have gained popularity among Japanese consumers, from Christmas and New Year, to Valentine’s Day and White Day (March 14th, when men can choose to reciprocate by giving gifts to the women they had received a gift from on Valentine’s Day). However, even the changing of the seasons represents a new opportunity to release limited-edition products that incorporate sought-after ingredients or that elicit a certain mood to match the season.
Selected flavours and fragrances commonly associated with a particular season are good examples. Many FMCG brands leverage their knowledge of seasonal preferences and keep abreast of trends in this space to plan product releases. For instance, in the summer, a laundry detergent brand might incorporate a refreshing citrus scent, but in the winter opt for a cinnamon-inspired version instead.
Seasonal offerings are often produced in limited quantities until stock runs out completely. This presents a real sense of novelty that encourages Japanese consumers to purchase items or take up experiences that won’t be available for long.

COVID-19 has resulted in lower demand for physical consumer touchpoints

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese consumers have sought out more experiences from the comfort of their own home, saving them time and money. This includes making purchases via e-commerce sites without exploring physical shops. Especially among members of the older generation, there was previously a strong tendency towards in-person shopping where customers could ask staff questions directly and see items in situ.
Since the pandemic, however, Japan has seen several notable stores close down, such as the Tokyu department store in Shibuya, partly due to Japanese consumers having re-assessed their purchasing priorities. One example is that home and personal care offerings have become more aligned with customers’ heightened inclination to create their own luxurious and personalised bubble.
In line with this shift in consumer behaviour, e-commerce represents a strong opportunity for foreign SMEs. It’s generally more cost-effective and direct to use. Setting up physical stores in Japan, whether permanent or temporary, can be extremely time-consuming, complex to navigate, and more costly. Therefore, businesses should consider investing primarily in e-commerce channels to appeal directly to Japanese consumers and tailor promotional offers accordingly. The most popular e-commerce sites for foreign and local businesses alike are Amazon Japan and Rakuten Ichiba.

To summarise, there are many aspects that differentiate Japanese consumers when it comes to making purchases. These arise both because of fundamental cultural expectations and economic factors. As a foreign SME entering the Japanese market, you should be especially mindful of the following points:

  • Firstly – deeply understand your audience’s needs and habits. Ask yourself; which demographic(s) are we catering to? Which channels will we use to sell our products/services and deliver promotions? How can we optimise our brand to be most relevant within a Japanese context and still maintain our core values
  • Secondly – create all customer touchpoints in Japanese, including hiring native-speaking staff with experience in your sector and knowledgeable content localisers. This will ensure your message is on-point and relevant for your audience in Japan.
  • Thirdly – figure out how to align your marketing plan to account for Japanese consumer preferences. Even if you have some experience in this area, collaborating with a specialist local marketing agency will be paramount to creating a customised roadmap.

Contact the operviser team today to discuss how we can support you.


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