How to Develop a Market Entry Strategy in Japan.

Market entry strategy for Japan
Image of the post author Geetika Chhatwal

With a GDP of $5.15 trillion, Japan is well-positioned for international expansion and offers substantial business opportunities for brands in various industries. 

The country has dramatically bounced back from the disruption caused by the 2011 natural disasters, like the earthquake and the Tsunami.

Japanese motor vehicles and electronics are prevalent globally. It is also among the world’s largest producers of steel. 

The country is among the world’s largest exporters of motor vehicles and electronic equipment. The service sector makes up the highest percentage of the economy in terms of gross domestic product and employment.

Major Industries in Japan

Japan’s five largest companies by market capitalization are Toyota, Sony, Keyence, Recruit Holdings, and SoftBank Group. Sony’s portfolio includes a distinctly non-Japanese Hollywood movie and music business originally acquired through a merger and acquisition over 30 years ago. SoftBank, in recent years, has morphed into a massive tech fund run by foreign fund managers invested almost entirely in non-Japanese startups. Recruit’s new CEO spent ten years acquiring and growing recruitment businesses in the U.S. before his promotion earlier in 2022.

Japan is focused on manufacturing precision and technology products such as hybrid vehicles, robotics, and optical instruments.

Other industries prominent in Japan are agriculture, fishing, and tourism. 

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What makes Japan an excellent choice for international expansion

Large World economy

The third-largest economy in the world, after the United States and China, and the fourth largest importer of U.S. products, Japan is open for international business. It is also one of the world’s most literate and technically advanced nations.

Robust Consumer Economy

Japan has a robust consumer economy with a per capita income of $42,197 and is a haven for brands that want to expand internationally. Japan’s massive consumer economy, in which consumers with considerable purchasing power seek high-quality and innovative goods and services. 

Protections and Compliance

An essential member of the international trade system, Japan complies with the law, and its efforts to maintain the rule of law is one of the pillars of its foreign policy. It also provides intellectual property protection and rights. 

Easy and inexpensive to set up an office 

According to the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” report, it takes about 11 days to incorporate. It costs 0.7 percent or JPY 60,000, (approximately USD 470 million), whichever is higher, and registration and seal fees. For companies that want to set up a branch office, the costs are low and procedures simple. Co-working spaces are also an option in bigger cities. 

Rapidly Aging Population

Japan is ageing fast. One in three people is estimated to be 65 years and older by 2036, conferring the title of the world’s leading “super-aged society.”

While the nation’s rapidly ageing and declining population pose risks of an economic crisis, it also presents massive opportunities. As a result of the declining population, individual income has risen, surpassing U.S. citizens.

Fewer people in Japan mean larger living spaces, more arable land capital, more disposable income, and higher quality of living. This fuels the growth in several industries, such as pharmaceuticals, healthcare, franchising, and real estate, to name a few.

Seniors in Japan are financially secure and healthy overall and big consumers of various products and services. 

Innovation and Research 

Japan reigns supreme in research as a nation with a large senior population. It has a goldmine of data on ageing, medical data, and medical assessments—these datasets are beneficial for local governments worldwide. The nation ushers innovation and technological advancement in many sectors. 

Just as countries can look up to Japan to help their ageing population and fill technological gaps, foreign brands can view this as a great time to expand and invest in such fields.

Significant obstacles to consider before entering the Japanese market

Entering the Japanese market is lucrative and full of opportunities, but it is not without many obstacles and challenges. It is noteworthy here that Japan is one of the few Asian countries that never had a western country rule over them, and this is because of Japanese are strong-willed and are rooted in tradition. 

Although tariffs are generally low, Japan has other barriers to entering the market that may hinder foreign products’ importation into the country. 

It is essential to factor in some of the most significant obstacles before entering the Japanese market. These hurdles can be measured against the brand and company goals to make the right decision and market entry plan. 

  1. Japan’s size makes it essential for brands to invest substantially, increasing risks.
  2. Japan is a highly competitive market, and domestic brands have a strong presence. Therefore, it is not easy to compete with local Japanese companies. However, thorough market research before creating the market entry plan can help brands overcome the challenge of competing with local companies.
  3. Japanese are discerning and look for value for money and high quality when making purchase decisions. Additionally, the Japanese culture and tastes are very different from the Western world. Therefore, brands have to redesign and redevelop their products and services to tailor them to local tastes and preferences in most cases. Market research and product testing methodologies can help brands create and tweak products to fit the Japanese lifestyle and culture.
  4. Japan has very little foreign investment for an advanced nation, keeping the Japanese business sector isolated. As a result, only about 3-5 percent of Japanese speak good English, which can be a barrier for some countries.
  5. Japan has a strong network of regulations, permissions, and extensive procedures as a bureaucratic country. These strict regulations keep new entrants from competing with established industries. However, these regulations are being slowly relaxed.
  6. Management and H.R. policies are very different in Japan, and organizations entering the country must consider and adapt to the management style in Japan, because failing to do so, is a recipe for disaster. 

Marketing to the Japanese consumer

Japan is a unique market, and it is crucial to understand the cultural nuances and the Japanese consumer. You cannot become a Japanese marketing expert overnight, and it is helpful to hire local advertising agencies when marketing in Japan. 

For the same reason as above, it is critical to regionalise everything. Labels on products and marketing and sales materials, digital campaigns, and the website need to be in the Japanese language.

The Pepsiman commercial is an excellent example of regionalizing a brand. When Pepsi’s Japan branch decided to create something regional for Japan, they contacted Travis Charest to create a superhero mascot to promote Pepsi. This faceless superhero managed to get a cult following in the country. They developed an action game for the Playstation and created several successful commercials using Pepsiman. 

Nike’s attempt to extend its marketing message to include social activism in Japan was met with criticism. Nike Japan released a video depicting the struggles of women athletes in Japan that faced bullying and racism, topics that are not openly discussed in the country.

Martin Roll, a business and brand adviser, says that Japanese consumers are not as vocal and will not express dissent unless they feel brands cross a red line. Therefore, it is important to have a deep understanding of the culture, the sentiment of the people, the root of homogeneity in Japan (post-Hiroshima Nagasaki, there was a focus on a homogeneous society), and how to carefully tread the delicate line.

As in any other new country, it is also essential to have a local marketing plan and calendar.

Distribution and Sales Channels in Japan

The choice of distribution channels depends upon the product. Due to space limitations, small retail stores often stock limited inventory, and wholesalers deliver smaller amounts more frequently. 

Culturally, the Japanese prefer face-to-face interactions and place a high value on building and maintaining business relationships. This distribution system is costly and increases the price of goods. The growth of big box stores and e-commerce is challenging this status quo. 

In 2021, approximately 2.25 million vending machines in Japan were beverage vending machines, selling drinks like cooled beverages or coffee. 

The primary distribution and logistics points are found in the major port cities, like Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka, and Fukuoka.    

Market entry strategy for Japan

Brands need to develop and maintain strong relationships with local partners to gain a foothold and succeed in the Japanese market. The local partner can act as an agent, representative, or distributor and manage a branch office or subsidiary in Japan. 

Since the business culture is unique in Japan, visiting the country several times before entering the market is good. This can help familiarise the organization with the culture and business climate. 

Japan has a stable economy and is a dream destination for foreign investment. The key to successful business entry in Japan is doing the leg work using market research to understand the culture, localise the product and messaging, and find the right partner to expand the given brand in this unique marketplace full of opportunities.