Doing Design Business in Japan: Experiences from Hirameki

23. Jun 2011

Those who have already been to Japan – and particularly the bigger cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya – know that people consume a lot and in a fast pace. Despite the economic downturn in 2008, Japanese people have continued to spend remarkable amounts of yen on designer products. Design products to many Japanese people are what honey is for Winnie the Pooh. Japan is a haven for design products and aesthetics aficionados, so it would be silly not to try to get your products there or become inspired by their aesthetics.

While many scholars have already been investigating Japanese consumption and consumers, little is still known how foreign designers and design companies can penetrate the Japanese market, which is why in the summer of 2010 we initiated a project to study Finnish designers and design companies entering the Japanese market. Our findings are based on an empirical study dealing with Hirameki Design x Finland – the biggest Finnish design export initiative to date.

Below, I will briefly introduce our research group, after which I discuss some of our main findings. Finally, I will offer my take on how design-related research in the Scandinavian-Japanese context should develop.

Our research group – titled JaBuPro – consisted of eight researchers (one coordinator, three PhD students, and four Master’s students from Aalto University, Finland) who – for various reasons – had fallen in love with Japan and Japanese aesthetics.. Before this project, our coordinator – Virpi Serita – had already coordinated two student-driven Japan-related projects (first about business communication, second focusing on marketing Finnish design in Japan), so against this backdrop our recently finished project was a natural continuation to the previous two projects.

The book we released – Doing Design Business in Japan: Experiences from Hirameki – was mainly practical in focus; aimed at giving hand-on guidance to designers. In this publication we touched Japanese business etiquette and culture, storytelling, network models to name few examples. In terms of academic contributions, members of our team have worked on various topics.  Some have written conference papers on the internationalization motives of Finnish design companies, one is currently working on questions dealing with the Japanese mobile market and accessible design, while others are working on PechaKucha presentations as visual knowledge communication tools in multicultural settings. Thus, the academic and practical contributions of our guerrilla project (we all worked on it in addition to our PhD and Master’s studies) varied from internationalization strategies and accessible design to visual knowledge creation and storytelling as a communicative icebreaker in Japan.

As we saw it, the challenge related to managerial books on Japan is that they always seem to focus on stereotypes and heavy industry. The problem with these kinds of books is that they over-simplify Japan and the Japanese, and leaves out some of the “softer” elements of conducting business.

Focusing on the generally accepted stereotypes does not bring us closer to each other culturally simply because stereotypes often do not apply in practice. Furthermore, there are also great variations between different industries and professions – particular rituals and norms being held as more important in certain fields than in others. We found, for example, that the Japanese business etiquette it not followed as strictly within the creative industries as it might be within heavy/traditional industry. The tendency to ignore internal diversity has had a strong hold on cultural analysis within business disciplines (e.g. management, international business, marketing), and cultural research has taken major steps, these disciplins still rely heavily on Hofstede’s notion of culture. We found, however, that equating culture with nationality has a tendency of leading to empty constructs since within a nation, it can be argued that there is cultural deviation between professions, cities, educations and so forth. In fact, during our project we found that often the Finnish designers felt they could easily relate to their Japanese counterparts. Thus, with our project it was our ambition to contribute to making a shift the focus of cultural studies in business, from explaining to describing. The ambition was to give our reader rich and detailed accounts of a specific context rather than attempt making reductionist generalization.

We also found, during our data collection phase that storytelling (something we would characterize as a rather “soft” business practice) plays an extremely important role in Japan as a means to convey not only knowledge, but also emotions. Indeed, in terms of storytelling, it would seem that Japan is one of the most fertile contexts to collect empirical material. Japan has a very long history of storytelling, and the power of stories has endured or even become stronger in the 21st century and today stories are an essential aspect in consumption, and business negotiations, for example. Our focus was on the intersection between stories and business negotiations and one of our findings was that stories can be used to connect with one’s client or to break the ice in business negotiations. What makes business negotiations interesting in Japan is that things have a tendency of progressing slowly and matters are usually dealt with indirectly. In this light, approaching your potential customer or agent indirectly with stories  (behind your product or company, for example) seems to be a path worth investigating.

To conclude, we launched the project because we felt the companies required tools to expand to the Japanese market and because our theoretical understanding of Finnish (or Scandinavian) design companies entering the Japanese market is still rather limited.

In terms of further research, the intersection between Scandinavia, Japan, and design is interesting not only because it hasn’t been studied extensively, but also because we still don’t know much about the actual processes related to internationalizing design products and services, and how meanings and symbols embedded in a design product are carried from culture to another (or from a market to another). Thus, cultural studies have a lot to offer to design-related investigations.

Miikka Lehtonen

[email protected]

+35840 353 8451


JaBuPro research group (you can download the book from the web site):

Hirameki – Finnish design export initiative by Design Forum Finland:

Aalto University: