International PR: Japan

My writing partner, George Bowden, and I collaborated on this research paper discussing public relations practices in Japan – specifically, how they parallel to American PR practices. We researched the country’s culture, government, and general business climate as part of our literature review for the first half of the paper. For the second half, we addressed some of the key concepts in Japanese PR. This paper was presented in the Fall of 2011 to Dr. Koji Fuse of the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism at the University of North Texas.




Japan: Land of the Rising Sun

General Overview

The country of Japan, more accurately referred to as Nihon or Nippon, is an island nation in East Asia with the world’s tenth largest population of over 127 million people. It is often referred to as the “Land of the Rising Sun” because the characters that make up its name bear the meaning “sun origin.” The primary language spoken is Japanese, the sixth most-spoken language in the world, and the observed religions are chiefly Shinto and Buddhism (Tipton, 2002).


The political structure of Japan is a constitutional monarchy, a type of framework of a democratic monarchy. Akihito has served as Emperor since 1989, but in a constitutional monarchy, the Emperor serves as more of a symbolic figurehead whose power is actually quite limited. He is defined by the Japanese constitution as the “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” and performs more ceremonial than political duties (Toshihiro). Instead, the Prime Minister of Japan, along with his ministers of state, is the actual head of government (Kuroda, 1998).

On September 2, 2011, Yoshihiko Noda was officially named the Prime Minister of Japan (Hyde, 2011). Since 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ruled almost continuously until 2009 when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) defeated the ruling coalition. During the election, both the LDP and the DPJ tried to distance themselves from former Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, whose leadership approach was blamed for hurting job security and worsening social inequalities in Japan (Fackler, 2009). This type of campaign approach epitomizes Japan’s high regard for reputation and trust.

Japanese Culture and Values

Cultural values are the widely held beliefs that affirm what is desirable in a given country (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010). Some of the most defining traits of Japan are that it is a collective, masculine, and status-oriented culture.

Collective Culture

When describing cultural values, collectivism is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups; as opposed to individualism, as seen in the United States, which is when the cultural norm is more inclined toward looking after one’s own self-interests (Hofstede, 2009). Japan has traditionally been recognized as a collective culture; with people from birth onwards integrating into strong, cohesive groups that protect them in return for their loyalty. This kind of value heavily influences the self-concept of individuals and how they react to foreign products, advertising and preferred sources of information (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010).

While collective and individual cultures may value similar concepts, like luxury, they do so for different reasons. In Japan, luxury items are often purchased as more of a symbol of belonging or membership. This is in contrast to the American, individualistic culture, which tends to buy luxury items as a means of self-expression or standing out from the crowd. Brands often take on roles as symbols that extend beyond the basic features of the product category. For example, a person does not simply buy a watch, or even a status brand like Rolex; rather, they buy club membership as a way of showing their conformity to a more highly-valued group (Robinson, 1996). In Japanese culture, conspicuous consumption, or spending money on items for the purpose of showing wealth, is primarily motivated by brand reputation.

Personal appearance is also primary concern for Japan’s collective culture, because dressing well is often interpreted as a way of demonstrating in-group identity, concern for social norms, and a way of avoiding loss of face in front of other group members (Sun, Horn & Merritt, 2004).

Masculine Culture

When determining if a culture is masculine or feminine, one essentially examines the degree to which masculine values – like assertiveness, control and success – are valued over feminine values – like the more passive desires to nurture and build relationships. Historically, Japan has been regarded as the world’s most masculine society (Hofstede, 2009).

Whereas it might be taboo in America for one businessman to ask how much money another man makes, this kind of interaction would not be considered gauche in Japanese culture. Communication is direct and forward. Both men and women place strong importance on achievement and material success, so it is widely acceptable to be assertive, competitive and ambitious. Because of the strong work ethic in Japan, those who expect to succeed in business are expected to make certain sacrifices like extended work hours, fewer holidays, and reduced personal and family time.

Status-oriented Culture

A status-oriented society is more likely to prefer quality or prestigious brand names to functionally equivalent items with unknown brand names and lower prices (Mooij & Hofstede, 2002). In business, opportunities and prestige are based more on an individual’s family and class than on their personal job performance. In addition, products are advertised to demonstrate status and reputation over the actual ability of the product to accomplish a task.

This concept is closely related to the power distance, the degree to which people accept inequality in power, authority and status as natural or inherent in society (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010). This generally means that the people in those cultures are more inherently likely to accept social classes and ranking, and are more likely to seek the opinions of others for decision making purposes. In Japan, power is seen as more relational, in which businesses use professional distinctiveness to evaluate one another (Hofstede, 2009).

Social Protocol and Etiquette in Japan

Saving Face

An important societal concept in Japan is the idea of saving face. In general, the people of Japan believe that denying a person’s request will cause them embarrassment and a “loss of face” (Sidorova, 2010). They refrain from doing things that will cause them a loss of face, and do not openly insult, criticize, or put anyone on the spot in a social setting. Rather than saying “no” to a person’s request, an individual may say they are “taking it into consideration” instead. Saving face is a mark of one’s dignity and status in Japanese culture.

The Bow: Traditional Japanese Greeting

The bow is the general greeting in Japan, as opposed to the American handshake greeting. It is important to take note of how low the person greeting you has bowed, and return it with a bow as low as the one you have received, as this gesture indicates the relationship status between the two (Otsubu, 1986). It is also essential to keep the eyes low and the palms laid flat against the legs during the bow.

The Japanese Business Climate

Business Culture and Managerial Styles

The Japanese decision-making process is known as ringiseido adheres to desire for “harmony” among people, a key value in Japanese society (Ala & Cordeiro, 1999). This managerial style allows group members to participate in decision-making while still maintaining and respecting hierarchical relationships. In short, the ringiseido concept is a process based on consensus; it is an agreement that has been accepted by all parties involved in the decision-making process, and provides an environment of support.

In business, unemotional behavior is expected in order to maximize effectiveness and efficiency in the corporate culture (Hofstede, 2009). Japan’s core business structure is built on rules and structure in order to reach full operational potential.

Business Meetings and Professional Relationships

When it comes to business meetings, appointments are required and punctuality is very important. Traditionally, the highest-ranking individual will be seated furthest from the door in the meeting, and the rest of the group will sit in descending rank from that person toward the door (Robinson, 1996). The individual who requests the meeting should always provide literature about their company with client testimonials and media articles.

Japanese business places a very strong emphasis on relationships. Bring introduced or recommended by an individual who is already in good standing with the company is very helpful, because it allows them to understand where to place that person in relevance to standing hierarchical systems.

Meishi: Japanese Business Cards

In Japan, the term for business cards is meishi, which are given and received with both hands after the initial greeting bow. In international business, the Japanese language should be printed on one side and the other individual’s language should be printed on the opposite side. Traditionally, business will not begin until the meishi exchange process is completed. It is also considered very disrespectful to write on the cards or place them in your wallet or pocket (Otsubu, 1986).



Understanding the size and scope of Japanese media and pervasive elements of the country’s culture is critical to fully understanding Japanese public relations. Two drivers that shape Japanese public relations practices are the dominant role of press clubs (kisha kurabu) and the culturally instilled apology. A significant portion of this paper is dedicated to media and press clubs because of their traditional roles as gatekeepers of communications to the Japanese public. The public relations practices highlighted are those primarily exclusive to Japanese firms and may not reflect the practices of international firms operating in Japan.

The Scope of Japanese Media

In assessing the media’s power in Japan, Japanese newspapers have been described as “monolithic and regimented.” Readership for the country’s time five daily newspapers totals nearly 30 million, almost 25 percent of the population. In comparison, per capita readership in the United Kingdom is about 1 percent, and readership in the United States is even lower. The Nikkei Shambum, the country’s leading business publication, has about three million readers. In comparison, the Wall Street Journal’s readership is about two million (Schmidt, 2004). The newspapers’ power grows with their substantial ownership of Japans’ non-government television stations (Kelly, Masumoto & Gibson, 2002).

Japan’s media is considered powerful enough to be a major contributor to the past five years’ turnover of Japanese prime ministers – six since 2006. One example: following the naming of Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister in September 2010, Japan’s major newspapers conducted at least 10 public polls on his cabinet’s approval rating, setting a public agenda that doomed the administration to failure (The Economist, 2010).

As a result of this media strength, the top priority of Japanese corporate public relations departments (koho) is media relations.

Press Clubs (kisha kurabu)

Press clubs in Japan, by simplest definition, are reporters’ offices in major government, political, business and consumer organizations that allow those journalists nearly exclusive, early access to news and other information distributed by those organizations (Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association). By reputation as heavy-handed, media gatekeepers, they have earned the label of Japan’s “information cartel” (Japan Media Review).

To earn this privileged access to government and corporate information, approximately 160 media organizations pay dues to the Nihon Press Club, the corporation that governs membership to more than 800 press clubs throughout the country (Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association).

In 1998, Nobuaki Hanaoka, the deputy chief editorial writer for the Sankei Shimbun described press clubs as “all frontline strongholds in the battle for news reporting. And what’s more, they cost us journalists nothing!” (Sayle, 1999).

Japanese media have a history of banding together to pressure public institutions into access and disclosure in support of “the public’s right to know.” The origins of the Japanese press clubs parallel the White House press corps’, but on a much-grander scale.

Just a U.S. reporters did in 1914, when they established the White House Correspondents’ Association in response to a perceived Congressional threat of limited-media access to the president (White House Correspondents’ Association), a reporter for Jiji Shinpou newspaper founded Japan’s original press club – the Parliamentary Access Press Team — in 1890 after the Japanese Diet (parliament) denied media access to its inaugural session.

In 1941, Nihon Shinbun Kyokai (NSK), also known as the Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (JNPEA), became even more exclusive, slashing its membership to about 1/3; however, in 1949, post-World War II occupation forces required revised guidelines supporting the country’s democratization. The guidelines re-established the press clubs as fraternal organizations and disallowed any press-related activities (Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association).

The White House Correspondents’ Association followed a similar fraternal path in the early 1920s and beginning again in the 1940s with its extravagant, male-only annual dinners where journalists, politicians regularly exchanged off-the-record remarks. In the 1990s — facing restrictions on media, more media scrutiny and the advent of new forms – the White House Correspondents Association re-committed itself to its access goals and journalistic roots. The tradition of the annual dinner continues, regularly attended by the U.S. President and First Lady, and senior members of the government, with proceeds supporting journalism scholarships and professional recognitions (White House Correspondents’ Association).

The NSK also returned to its journalistic roots in 1997 with the updating of its governing rules, identifying itself as a “voluntary institution for news-gathering and news reporting activities” (Japan Media Review). NSK adopted its Canon of Journalism in 2000 to strengthen its members’ commitment to the public’s right to know and to “conduct themselves with honor and decency” (Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association).

In an exaggeration of the typical White House press conference, where the president or his spokesperson will call on strategically placed media members for their questions, the Japanese government often required press club members to submit questions for approval prior to the press conference. This practice seems to be changing with departure from the 54-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (Rogers).

The international journalism community has regularly battled with NSK because of its “off-limits” status for foreign journalists. David Butts might be considered a folk hero in this battle. A Texan, formerly with United Press International and newly employed at the time by Bloomberg, Butts attempted to crash the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 1991 following denial of access by the exchange’s press club. Butts was escorted from the exchange and told he could get press information from his competitor, AFP-Jiji. Embarrassed by the publicity, the Tokyo Stock Exchange press club eventually admitted Reuters and Bloomberg (Sayle, 1999).

In 2002, the European Commission referred to Japanese press clubs as “serious barriers to the free trade of information.” Prior to the 2002 Olympics held in Japan, Reporters Without Borders appealed to the Japanese government for reform, saying that “it is outrageous that correspondents of the foreign press should be excluded from most of these clubs.” In its 2004 Annual Report, Reporters Without Borders slammed the press club system, publishing, “the [Japanese] government and media showed no sign of changing any aspect of this archaic system” (Japan Media Review).

Activities considered unethical for journalists in the United States, such as accepting gifts from sources, permeate the press clubs. As a result, Japanese corporate leaders ranked good media relations as their top public-relations priority, compared to its number three ranking by U.S. executives.

As seen in David Butts’ conflict with the press club at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, media members themselves determine membership in the exclusive kasha kurabu (Kelly, Masumoto & Gibson, 2002), and they play such an influential role in determining media coverage that the Japanese government has made several attempts to abolish them (Cooper-Chen & Tanaka, 2008).

The press clubs’ control may become their own undoing among the Japanese people. Press clubs are taking the blame for the limited information provided by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPC) following this year’s tsunami disaster and the related Fukushima nuclear plant explosion. Following two months of reassurance that “everything was under control,” news leaked prior to the arrival of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors disclosed that three of the plant’s nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns instead of just one as TEPC had previously announced.

A Fuji Television Network survey followed the disclosure showed that 81 percent of the Japanese population no longer trusted the government for information about radiation (Fukushima News Online, 2011).

The 2009 change in government has continued to loosen the press clubs’ grip on information, including government strategies to steps to include internet services who now broadcast news conferences online. Following the tsunami disaster, NHK and the Fuji Television Network allowed Nico Nico Douga, an online news network, to simulcast their live emergency broadcasts and reach younger audiences.

“They called us,” said Nico Nico Douga director Takeshi Natsuno “Five years ago these television stations would never have contacted us” (Leussink, 2011).

“Critical” Need for More PR

Businesses rely far less on public relations in Japan than those in the United States, to the point where in the mid-90s, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry described the situation as “critical.” In 2005, Japan’s Gross Domestic Product of $4.5 trillion was about one-third that of the United States, while its PR industry totaled only about 10 percent that of the United States.

The practice of public relations began in the United States during the Great Depression, when businesses faced a complete lack of confidence from the American public. In contrast, Japan’s singular focus to rebuild its country and economy during the decades following World War II required minimal public relations efforts, to the point in 1971, when public relations professionals, citing Japan’s lack of public relations activities, predicted a “public relations flowering in the 1970s” (Bowen and Wattel, 1971).

Those same forecasters expected a growing need for public relations in Japan. Rapid technological advances had been countered by neglect and growing public concerns over roadway, water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure; environmental health and pollution issues (Bowen and Wattel, 1971); and corruption and scandals that prompted protests from the country’s “normally docile citizens” (Cooper-Chen & Tanaka, 2008).

Corporate Public Relations and the Media

The missions of corporate PR departments in the United States and their Japanese counterparts – kohos — are similar. The koho’s charge is to transmit the corporation’s “goals and sincerity by various communication means in order to receive support and understanding from the public;” however, this mission is traditionally accomplished through newsletters, advertising and other information sources (Kelly, Masumoto & Gibson, 2002). Fujie explains that the koho’s goal of “gaining societal and stockholder understanding of the corporation” is accomplished mostly through the media (as cited by Kelly, Masumoto & Gibson, 2002, p. 271).

Fujie also noted the differing priorities of the koho and the public relations departments in American corporations. According to an International Association of Business Communicators survey, American PR professionals rated developing reliable relationships with the public and sending targeted messages to stockholders as their top priorities, with the koho’s top-ranked priority of media relations falling to third (as cited by Kelly, Masumoto & Gibson, 2002, p. 271).

In separate surveys, 65 percent of Japanese PR staff members said that their most frequent activities were tied to media relations, followed most closely by 15 percent who said their priority activities related to newsletter production. The list of second-most-frequent activities was topped by newsletter/brochure writing (40 percent). Similar to the American model, slightly more than half of the respondents rated their public relations roles as a management function (Watson & Sallot, 2001).

Public Relations Firms and the Media

A quick review of case studies published by Kyodo Public Relations on its website demonstrates media relations’ dominance in Japanese public relations. Kyodo is one of Japan’s PR firms, and these cases are portfolio highlights used to sell its services.

  • For Chugai-pharmaceutical, Kyodo “PR officers … hand-carried sample bottles directly to the editors of some high-profile women’ magazines in order to appeal to the product’s refreshing effect.”
  • For Solvay-Seikui, another pharmaceutical company, “Kyodo PR organized 12 press seminars for three years, inviting overseas and Japanese university professors as guest speakers.”
  • For Flanders Foreign Investment Office, “Kyodo organises press releases and conferences during VIP visits to Japan. And also an average four times a year a press tour is organised in several key sectors: Logistics, Chemicals, ICT, Biotechnology, and the Automotive sector. As a result of the extensive coverage of Flanders in the Japanese media, Flanders became a well-known European region for Japanese foreign direct investment” (Kyodo Public Relations).

Dentsu Public Relations describes strategies for one of its more successful campaigns, “Upgrading Hokkaido Rice to ‘First Class,’” on its website. The first of its four strategies is a taste test for 300 consumers in Tokyo. Its remaining four strategies are all media focused: building a rice-focused media list, newsletters targeting a media audience, taste tests for the media and a press tour to see rice farms and interview growers (Dentsu Public Relations).

Advertising and Public Relations

Advertising (koukoku) and public relations (koukou) are closely tied in Japan. Advertising in Japan may be considered more “soft-sell” because of its focus on corporate image more than specific products. Ramaprasad and Hasegawa estimated that 75 percent of television ads in Japan are more emotionally focused, contributing to the blurred lines between advertising and public relations (as cited in Cooper-Chen & Tanaka, 2008).

Just like in the United States, where a third-party media endorsement is considered seven times more effective than an advertisement (Cameron, 1994), a third-party endorsement by one of Japan’s powerful media is considered much more reliable information for consumers than an advertisement (Clements).

The Apology

Offering the apology is considered a virtue in Japan and integral part of public relations strategy. It shows that the apologizer is willing to take personal responsibility for an action and that no one else is to blame. Whether the more-casual sumimasen or the deeply apologetic moushiwake arimasen, an expression of remorse followed by an appropriately deep bow earns forgiveness (Abe).

Although a huge part of Japanese culture, much of the apology’s role in corporate PR is attributed to the country’s “lifetime employment” system that puts a revolving door on corporate public relations departments. As employees move through and up the corporate ladders, the CEO, who may have hesitant, inexperienced PR practitioners on his team and may be unskilled and inexperienced in public speaking and media relations, becomes the corporation’s primary spokesperson. The response to crisis is often the CEO at a press conference maintaining a long silence, taking a deep bow and apologizing for his role in the tragedy (Cooper-Chen & Tanaka, 2008).

Following a crisis, Japanese press conferences may be packed with executives in dark suits with grave expressions, bowing deeply and apologizing to the Japanese public-at-large (Inoue, 2010).

In 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO Masatoshi Ono startled western media with his apology to a Congressional hearing related to fatalities caused by his tire products’ tread separation (Inoue, 2010). Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., slammed Ono, asking where his “sense of concern as a human being was.” Ono resigned one month later (Associated Press, 2010).

The apology is not an admission of guilt, as Ono explained in testimony for a civil lawsuit following the Congressional hearing:

“This was a sympathy expressed for those individuals who operated vehicles using our products and got into accidents. If we are deemed responsible for the accidents, that is another matter. However, there are maybe outside causes that had caused the accidents. Then I wouldn’t say we’re responsible for those accidents” (Ackman, 2000).

Congressional leaders blasted Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda for his apologies related to Toyota’s floor-mat-accelerator issues that caused several fatalities, labeling his “sincerest condolences” to them “from the bottom of my heart” as not showing “significant remorse” (Raum & Thomas, 2010). Following similar meetings in China, the Chinese press referred to him as “Mr. Apology” (Inoue, 2010).

The Future of Public Relations in Japan

A Japan Institute for Social and Economic Affairs survey highlighted the need for Japanese firms to expand their public relations horizons. The survey asked public relations professionals to identify which of these public relations activities will be the most important in five years: media relations; internal public relations; investor relations; advertising and publicity; crisis management; kocho (public hearing); cultural and social contribution; community relations; brand strategy; government relations, and; consumer relations including customer services.

The top choices were media relations, crisis communications and issues management. However, respondents added “social media,” “word-of-mouth” and “corporate transformation” to choices during the first round of questions. Unfortunately, these three activities finished near the bottom of the final survey responses, leaving consumer relations dead last (Yamamura).

In contrast, a survey of American public relations professionals raved about the continually growing role of social media. Warning against pursuing social media trendily with “the shiny object syndrome,” American responses stressed the need to use social media to better focus on clients’ target markets and to be able to measure online responses to their public relations activities (Swallow, 2010).

Although Japanese public relations professionals recognize the need to expand their practice beyond media relations, the tie to media relations appears to be difficult to break. The Japan Public Relations Institute (JPRI), whose mission is “to help create a better society through offering outstanding PR services in partnership with public bodies,” stresses the importance of “moving from mere information disclosure to interactive communications.” However, its recommendations continue in same mode of traditional Japanese public relations practices – media relations and printed materials.

JPRI identifies “the main aspects of public relations in the private sector,” and the first is “Effective Transmission of Information.” The first recommendation is “clarify your targets and select your media,” and the second is “on-target media relations.” Its second aspect is “Know the Present; Read the Future.” One of two questions it recommends asking is, “What types of PR materials do we have and who should we be relaying them to?”

In fairness, JPRI admits that its recommendations are built on the recognition that the traditional system of “employment for life” continues to maintain a swinging door on corporate communications departments. Tenure in public relations remains limited and minimizes opportunities for a working understanding and continuing professional development in public relations practices (Japanese Public Relations Institute).



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