One of the first things that struck me when I came to Japan as a young manager was how difficult it was to get people to leave the office at anything like what seemed to me to be a normal time. As many foreign managers will attest, this tendency to hang around the office often didn’t seem to have much to do with productivity. Rather, it was as if people were deliberately working slowly — unwilling to leave work unfinished till the next day, afraid to let the side down by leaving the office before 8, or just suffering from a free-floating anxiety about not being at one’s desk or away from their colleagues. Seeing this behavior as having no basis in rationality I took it on as a personal mission to force people to leave the office at what I considered a relatively late 6 o’clock. After having had a few semi-heated discussions with my team who told me I had no right to tell them not to work (and realizing I was being completely ignored), I gave up, perplexed. At least if any of my overseas colleagues thought I was allowing archaic and abusive work practices to fester, like any number of Japanese prime-ministers, I could put my hand on my heart and say I’d tried my best at reform!

Eventually I came to realize that I didn’t understand that Japanese have a totally different idea about time compared to westerners. We have all read or experienced the idea that they are more patient, and comfortable with things developing slowly (except, I might add if they are a client with a deadline!). When it comes to the working day, this tends to mean that, completely unlike the average situation in English-speaking countries, there is a soft beginning and a soft end to people’s workday. Office workers may work until late in the evening but, equally, it is not uncommon for them to start relatively late. On average workers start at 9.30 to 10.00am but in my industry it is not unusual for them to turn up around 11.00am and, in some cases, even later. Somewhat surprisingly, these informal, late starts do not seem to pose a problem for colleagues or clients (who are, more often than not, starting late themselves).

But, regardless, of whether people care about hard starts and finishes to their days, Japan is becoming more individualistic. This means that conflicts can arise when one’s personal timetable and the company’s needs are not compatible. In rides “Asakatsu” to the rescue!

Asakatsu is a trend currently developing in Japan amongst working men and women where they strive to better utilize the time they spend beforegoing to work. Asakatsu is an attempt to make better use of the early morning hours in order to get healthier, smarter, more beautiful and generally happier. A survey carried out in 2010 by the JMA Research Institute suggests that 1 in 7 people of working age are carrying out some form of morning activity, with the predilection especially strong among new hires.

So what are these early birds getting up to? There is a mind-body-spirit angle to a lot of these activities, which range from group yoga to Zazen (a Zen Buddhist form of meditation). On the lighter side, a movement called “Laughter Yoga” where people join groups to stretch and laugh is gaining popularity. Sports and exercise are of course featured in the trend with golf driving ranges, gyms and ballet studios offering early starts. Particularly innovative businesses such as the Wired Fit Café in Yoyogi offer workouts as well as breakfast.

For the vainer asakatsu aficionados, nail and beauty salons are increasingly offering early starts. This must be incredibly helpful when preparing for that all-important date. Yes, people are now going on dates before getting to work. On the less romantic networking side there are increasing numbers of morning business networking sessions and informal clubs catering to every hobby. For women, there is a website (meaning morning time) catering to their morning needs.

Many of us have quite enough to do during the day without taking on extra hobbies in the morning. However for these people, I suspect that Asakatsu can be viewed as an attempt to get back control over their lives from a system that looms way too large. Could one go so much as to say that it is a small rebellion against the system? Perhaps, but it is certainly a sign that Japanese workers are taking more of their lives into their own hands. This is a trend that presages the need for more flexible working arrangements and more considerate corporate management. On the marketing side, apart from the obvious morning activities that can be catered to, there is an opportunity to develop brands that speak to these longings for more “me” time. This is no new thing in Western countries, but the idea of personal indulgence is not one that has typically resonated well in Japan. Western marketers experienced in these crafting these appeals, seem well suited to make a contribution here.

CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.

We believe that, although the terrain you face in building a successful marketing strategy and activation path sometimes seems obscure, the path to success is knowable and that the consumer is the guide who will show you the way.

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