Lessons from Japan: 5 Trends You Can Trade On

This is the first in a series of articles in which we investigate trends in different parts of the world, show how companies are responding to those trends, and provide lessons you can apply to your business.  

Anyone lucky enough to have traveled to Japan will know why we start our journey with this fascinating Asian island. In this piece, we’ll cover 5 key characteristics of the country that you can learn from:

  • Convenient, healthy food: We extract learnings from a culture that has mastered healthy eating and how to apply impeccable food hygiene standards in a post-COVID world hyper-focused on food safety. 
  • J-Wellness: We uncover opportunities to investigate societal tendencies based on physical and mental wellness and bring them to the West.
  • Automation-based experiences: We show how one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world has integrated robots into everyday life and which automated experiences might take off elsewhere.
  • Party-for-one culture: As single-occupant household rates continue to rise around the world, Japan serves as a model of what a “super solo” society of the future could look like. 
  • And our favorite recession-proof industry… pets: Even though there are relatively few pet owners in Japan, they are notorious for pampering their pooches. There are opportunities for entrepreneurs to capitalize in countries where pet owners are in the majority. 

What Makes Japan Different

While no article will ever be able to describe all the intricacies of a culture, there are noteworthy macro trends that drive innovation in the country:

  • An aging population: Japan’s population is aging faster than any other population in the world. In 2019 the country’s birth rate fell by ~6% to its lowest number on record. While this creates problems, it also forces the country to solve problems that many other countries will soon need to solve too. 
  • A single population: The unmarried population in Japan has increased dramatically since 1990. By 2040, it is estimated that one-third of all men and one-fifth of all women will remain unmarried throughout their lives. 
  • A culture of perfectionism: The concept of “Kaizen” is native to Japan. It loosely translates to “seeking continual improvement” and implies a pursuit of perfection. It can be observed in many aspects of Japanese life, from sushi to bonsai, and permeates the entire culture.  
  • A focus on health and hygiene: Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world. Japanese women are expected to live to ~87 and men to ~81. This is the result of a culture highly focused on physical health and wellbeing. 
  • A long-term approach: Japan is home to many of the world’s oldest companies. In fact, in 2008, the Bank of Korea found that of the companies that were around for 200+ years across 41 countries, 56% were in Japan, including the oldest hotel in the world.  Watch this animated GIF story The Hustle created in 2018 to find one weird reason why this is the case (hint: it has to do with adult adoption). 

1. Convenient, Healthy Food

The Big Picture: Japanese cuisine is one of the 3 national food traditions to be recognized by the UN for cultural significance. And its relatively healthy nature contributes to the country’s impressive life expectancy.

With an increasing focus the world over on healthy eating, there are lessons to be learned from a culture that has mastered healthy, high-quality food, even in places where you typically wouldn’t expect to find it (ex: vending machines and convenience stores). This is due to their impeccable food and safety standards — another practice the rest of the world could learn from with the new, COVID-induced focus on food hygiene.

Konbini (Sometimes Spelled conbini, Combini)

Japan’s convenience store food is so well known for high-quality offerings, it’s become a tourist attraction and even has its own rating system.

Amid some of the most popular products found in convenience shops like 7-Eleven, Family Mart, or Lawson, you’ll find surprising products that could be tried abroad:

  • Sweet sandwiches (“sando” in Japanese)
  • Savory ice cream (from lavender to chicken wing)… or ice cream that doesn’t melt
  • Healthy beer, including Suntory zero-calorie, nonalcoholic beers 
  • Seasonal and regional products, from melon bread (melonpan) to cherry blossom burgers

With the popularity of high-quality convenience store food, there’s opportunity for people to:

  • Learn how Japan’s konbini system works (i.e., how they keep the onigiri so damn fresh) and bring these principles abroad. A dive into how they manage to keep 60k+ of these joints open 24/7 is an operational case study in itself.
  • Create a YouTube channel or Twitch account that tastes and ranks Japanese konbini. Top videos ranking on YouTube already bring in hundreds of thousands of views.
  • Identify trendy products that are the “next ramen” or spice up an existing product (i.e., craft ramen or ram-don noodles). Imagine starting a ramen business in 2015? Search through the konbini ranking system to find the best of the best.
Source: Google Trends

Companies have taken advantage by setting up subscription boxes for Japanese products. And although these businesses likely drive most of their acquisition through paid ads, there are also people searching for them:

  • “Japan box”: 8.1k searches/month
  • “Japan candy box”: 1.5k searches/month
  • “Japanese subscription box”: 540 searches/month
  • “Japanese candy subscription box”: 480 searches/month

Both Japan Crate and Bokksu bring in ~200k page views each month (If you’re interested in learning more about the subscription box market, check out our report here).

Vending Machines

There are ~5m vending machines in Japan generating $60B+ in sales. That’s more vending machines than the US (4.6m), despite less than 40% the population size. For scale, that’s one vending machine for every 26 people. But it’s not just the number that differs — it’s the stuff in the box. In Japan, you can buy anything from rice to batteries in the vending machines, but it’s also extremely common to purchase hot food.

What’s important to understand is that the vending machine business model works in Japan for a multitude of macro-reasons: an automation-heavy society (more on this later) that values convenience, has high labor costs, and is densely populated. These macro-factors are not only found in Japan. 7-Eleven is looking at testing an entire vending machine convenience store in South Korea.

Sites like Vending Connection provide resources and also a marketplace for vending goods, but with the increasing interest in vending machines, this may be an opportunity to rethink the outdated vending experience in the West.

Source: Google Trends

Amid a tumultuous time where social distancing is needed more than ever, hot-food vending machines like those found in Japan and Korea may be a business worth a double take. Companies like HelloFreshGo are looking to replicate this hot-food experience for the office as well. 

2. J-Wellness

The Big Picture: The COVID-19 crisis has changed the game for mask-wearing in Western nations. A behavior that was always thought to be exclusive to Asia is now commonplace around the globe. While extreme, it is just one example of a trend that has already moved from East to West (you can add threading, sugaring, gua sha, and K-Beauty to the list). 

The time is ripe to investigate societal tendencies in places like Japan where wellness and health (physical and mental) are prioritized. 

Hygiene Fashion

Masks are sold in corner shops and markets everywhere, but are just one example of a product where the Japanese prioritize their health over trying to fit in. Pimple patches in South Korea are another example of this. 

Another good example is the prevalence of ear-cleaning parlors in Japan. The Japanese take ear care seriously, dedicating entire salons to the practice. But the interest is moving West, and there may be opportunity to create product lines around it (ex: ear-cleaning kits, which also have increasing interest). Dollar Ear Cleaning Club, anyone?

Source: Google Trends

Steamy Stuff

Perhaps the most illustrious example of J-Wellness is the density of public saunas and baths in Japan. In addition to the 20k+ onsens (hot springs) that Japan has access to naturally, they also have thousands of bathhouses (“sento”). Interest in both of these, in addition to related terms, have increased over time.

Source: Google Trends

As the wellness space expands, practices like saunas are a natural addition, even in Western societies. Japanese forest-bathing even has a word, “shirin-yoku,” and has been invested in heavily by Japan, with 62 healing forests and 1.2k certified guides. In 2018 2.5m+ visited the forests. Studies have shown that the phytoncide in the cedar and cypress trees in these forests have calming and immune-boosting effects. 

Karōshi

Japan’s work culture is in many ways the most extreme in the world. It’s pushed many millions to their limit, to the point that the country unfortunately even has a word for “overwork death” — karōshi — and it impacts thousands each year. To combat karōshi, the Japanese government added a “Stress Check Program.” 

But overwork is not exclusive to Japan. It’s likely that foreign governments or businesses abroad will need to develop a similar program to combat workplace burnout. The coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the importance of mental health. Even before the pandemic reached its peak, people were discussing whether mental health support should be a company benefit. Now, 95% of surveyed employers plan to offer virtual mental-health services to their employees by 2022.

In addition to government intervention, there is also a wave of Japanese startups looking to reshape the country’s work culture. Two examples are:

  • Empath Inc.: The company uses AI technology to detect emotion (joy, calm, anger, and sorrow). Empath has developed an employee assistance program called “My Mood Forecast,” which tracks week-to-week changes in employees’ moods based on their voices. Employees can monitor their own mood movements as well as those of their colleagues in order to promote team understanding and motivation. 
  • Wantedly: A nontraditional recruitment services platform that matches candidates with companies based on their shared values, as opposed to salaries and benefits. The company aims to shift employees’ focus on paychecks to pursuing their interests and finding a culture-fit. 

3. Automation-Based Experiences

The Big Picture: Technologically, Japan is one of the most advanced countries in the world. But they don’t just use technology to create faster computer chips — they also reinvent how robots integrate into our daily lives. 

We’ve already reported on Japan’s digital museums — entertaining spaces that allow people to engage with dynamic technology. In this section, we’ll talk about how keeping an eye on Japan’s thriving automated experiences can shed light on what may take off elsewhere. For example, Japan has had VR parks for many years now, but just recently VR companies have started getting major investment in the West. 

All the Robots

As Japan’s population ages, there aren’t enough resources for young people to take care of the old in quite the same way. Japan has looked to technology to provide support for the elderly, including therapy robots like Qoobo and Paro, which have been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.

Other robots are finding functions in more fun environments, including robot cafes, robot hotel staff, and police robots. While the rest of the world is publishing headlines claiming that robots are stealing their jobs, Japan is embracing the humanoids not just to support their aging population, but also for other purposes like teaching children English. If you’re keen to see what robots may end up on your shores next, look to Japan for some inspiration.

(Looking for other business opportunities as populations age? See how Japan is responding here.)

Conveyor-Belt Sushi or… Car Parks?

As a result of their high population density, Japan has also looked to automation to save space and efficiency. Conveyor-belt sushi or sushi trains are commonly known outside of Japan, but still not very commonplace. In Japan, they not only have the classic conveyor belt that allows you to pick and choose what you want, but also automated restaurants like Genki Sushi, which allows you to select your food on an iPad and have it whizzed over to your table.

Source: Google Trends

But sushi isn’t the only thing being automated in Japan. Some automated parking lots in Japan have existed for years, automating the car parking experience with large robots. These businesses have just started to pop up in the West, like Stanley Robotics, a French startup that went live in 2019.

4. Party-for-One Culture

The Big Picture: Some good news for the introverts among us. The term “ohitorisama,” which loosely translates to “party of one,” has been gaining popularity in recent years in Japan, where over one-third of households are single-occupant. 

While the country is traditionally group-oriented, even having a special term (“benjo meshi”) for opting to take your lunch break in a bathroom stall rather than being seen eating alone, youngsters in particular are starting to embrace solo experiences. 

Japan’s trend towards solo living is not unique, or even remarkable. The country’s single-occupant household rate is 7th of 36 OECD countries after Denmark, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, and France. In the US, the share of single-person households has increased from 13% in 1960 to 28% in 2017.   

There are opportunities to borrow from businesses embracing Japan’s party-for-one culture, especially when we consider that the market for solo experiences is not limited to people living alone — being cooped up at home with partners and family for months on end has everyone craving a little alone time.

Source: The Japan Times

Solo Experiences

From dining to entertainment, the “super solo” experience culture is flourishing. More and more businesses in Japan are catering towards the individual, rather than the group. A few examples:

  • Dining: At the Ichiran ramen noodle restaurant chain, solo patrons order their noodles from a vending machine and enjoy them from the comfort and solitude of a partitioned booth for one. 
  • Entertainment: Restaurants are not the only establishments to offer a partitioned booth only big enough for one. There are cinemas in Japan that do the same. Karaoke is also going solo: Soundproof private singing booths for one are gaining popularity. Finally, some theme parks reward singletons by letting them jump the queue at theme parks. 
  • Nightlife: Bar Hitori (which translates to “individual”) is a cozy bar in Tokyo with a “solo only” policy that accommodates ~17 people at full capacity. Patrons, who can only enter if they are alone, can strike up a conversation with others or choose to enjoy the seclusion. 
  • Travel: Capsule hotels originated in Japan in the 1970s and were used primarily by drunk men too embarrassed to return to their spouses after they missed the last train. They are now widely used by tourists around the world, and are just one example of how tourism in Japan caters to solo adventurers. Solo travel is an exploding trend the world over that is set to continue: it is the 2nd most popular category for post-lockdown travel after couples, according to a recent survey.  
Solo dining at Ichiran Ramen. Image credit: OddityCentral

Single-Person Products

By 2040, single-occupant households will make up almost 40% of all households in Japan. It’s not surprising, then, that there are plenty of products designed specifically for single life at home. Just for the kitchen you can buy a mini tempura pot, bento rice cooker, combination toaster oven and frying pan, and countertop dishwasher all designed for one person.

5. And Our Favorite Recession-Proof Industry… Pets.

The Big Picture: And finally… Japan loves “cute culture” so much that they have a word for it: “kawaii.” Much of kawaii is built off characters based on animals. So it’s not surprising that keeping an eye on Japanese pet culture might give a window into trends in one of the most recession-proof industries.

Pet owners are in the minority in Japan — ~18% of people compared to 67% in the US — primarily because of space shortages in small city apartments. Despite this, the pet industry is booming in the country where furry friends are considered some of the most pampered in the world. 

Pet Cafes

In Japan, you’ll find a cafe filled with just about any animal. Dogs, cats, owls, lizards, hedgehogs, pot-bellied pigs… you name it. At the Mipig cafe in Tokyo, patrons pay ~$7.50 to spend 30 minutes with miniature pigs imported from Britain. 

While there are certainly concerns about animal welfare in many of these cafes, when done right, they are an excellent way for people to de-stress, and for non-pet-owners to interact with animals without the expenses and responsibilities associated with full-time pet ownership. 

Source: Google Trends

Treating Your Pets

The Japanese also know how to treat their pets. At the Andy Cafe and Dog Salon in Tokyo, you can order food for your pooch that is designed to look like what you are eating, be it a mini-hamburger, cheesecake, quiche, bento box, or cake, according to The Independent.  

The Wanwan (“woof woof”) Fitness Center, also in Tokyo, is a specialty gym for dogs which offers a swimming pool, aromatherapy massages, and individualized fitness programs for dogs. Some apartment buildings even offer canine exercise areas that come with mini treadmills and hydrotherapy tanks. 

But the sector that has made Japan notorious in the pet industry is fashion and accessories. From cat hats to dog strollers, Japan has it all. Many companies, like ZenMarket have built their businesses on shipping products from Japan to other parts of the world, including some of their best pet clothes, food, supplements, and accessories.  
Some lesser-known Japanese pet extravagances include: hot springs for dogs, pet taxis, pet funeral services and cemeteries, and pet hotels and retreats.

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