Competing definitions of progress in today’s Japan
One definition of progress is that the Japanese market should move its society from one based on traditional values – highly protective of change and respectful of continuity and stability – to one of openness and free market competition. These values are viewed by many Japanese, fairly or unfairly, as core American values. Certainly, there is an opinion of Japan’s level of progress, often articulated by Westerners, that considers the way things are done here at all levels of business and society to be profoundly inefficient and not fit for the modern world. There are many Japanese who agree with this.
While some readers may view the meaning of ‘progress’ as moving to a green, more inclusive society that addresses the excesses of capitalism, others view progress as creating a more competitive, efficient, liberal economy and society – to address the issues that come from a hide-bound traditional society.
It’s important to realize that if we accept that Japan remains a traditional society that values continuity above all, the move to a more liberal model is quite radical. Nevertheless, Japanese society has an element that is the natural constituency for liberal reform, and over the years, we have learned much about its value systems.
At The Carter Group, we’ve tracked consumer insights in Japan every year since 2017. Beginning in 2021, we added over 60 questions covering everyday people’s values on issues such as personal confidence and security, the nation’s position in the world, how people feel about institutions and powers that be, the roles of science and tradition, as well as the world of work and emergent social and environmental issues.
We apply a statistical method called cluster analysis to pull people who indicate similar values into separate groupings. Within these groups, members are more similar in their worldview to each other than they are to members of other groups.
Rediscovering the liberal model
We call this natural constituency for a more free-market Japan “the 20th Century Modernists.” These people represent around 10% of our population-representative sample aged 15-69. If you detect an irony in the label, it’s because their values (which came to the fore in the 80s in the English-speaking world) are considered already passé by the new woke elites in western countries. But many would argue that Japan has never had a liberal transformation, and if that’s something you think is a good thing, you’ll be happy to know we believe this is what the challenge of the 21st century will represent.
These 20th Century Modernists, in relation to our other segments’ values, hold a pretty ‘realistic’ view of the world as having a foundation based on competition. Many see the world as a dog-eat-dog place where people only respect strength. Many are also happy to live with some social problems as long as their way of life is preserved. They are not particularly interested in climate change, women’s rights, or racism. As far as the workplace is concerned, they believe in the kind of reform that lets them work from home. They are individualists, through and through.
Science, efficiency and competition are critical themes for them. Technology, flexibility, agility, and freedom would appear to hold the answers to the problems that Japan faces. Innovation, including advanced medical innovation, is welcomed, not feared.
Young, successful, but not so green
Our 20th Century Modernists are the youngest segment at just under 40 years old on average. Yet their household income is the highest. The gender split is around 60/ 40 in favor of males. So, young, high-income and male is the ‘look’. These are confident folks with the world at their feet, who’ve benefited from Japan’s moves in recent decades to liberalize. They are not so interested in tradition, which probably puts them at odds with many others in the Japanese market. Nevertheless, they are the essential movers who are driving economic vitality at the enterprise level.
There is no doubt that the values of the 20th Century Modernists link to better economic outcomes at both the personal and macro levels. This is what our modern capitalist economies are based on. However, the liberal model they embrace does create problems in social equity and the environment. So there is likely to be tension in society if those liberal values come into the ascendant, and partly for that reason, there is a natural urge to suppress them among the Japanese.
It seems that the story of Japan in the coming decades will be a mainstream tension of what progress means – between traditionalists (who insist on continuity), and divergent views among those who wish for progress – with some viewing progress as greater economic efficiency, and others viewing a green, collectivist future that hews to the SDG model of the society of the future.