2016 gave the world lots to be pessimistic about: the ever-present spectre of terrorism gave way to fear-mongering in a number of countries, which in turn spurred a return to nationalistic sentiment compounded by the stupefying election of Donald Trump as the leader of the ‘free world’. Alongside that come concerns over a breakdown of globalisation, not to mention the usual sagas of companies struggling to deal with scandals of their own making.
It’s natural to assume that all this would be bad for morale in Japan, a country working hard to move forward but that is also extremely cautious at the best of times. And indeed, Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, released on 7 February, shows Japan to be the most pessimistic out of 28 markets surveyed: just 17 percent of the mass population believe they will be better off in five years’ time.
Yet it may not be as bad as it looks. The informed public is decidedly more positive in the four main institutions of society presented by Edelman, which include business, government, media and NGOs. Among this group, trust in business is up 10 percentage points on last year to 55 percent; trust in government is up 12 points to 53 percent; trust in media is up 6 points to 45 percent; and trust in NGOs is up 4 points to 44 percent. The overall trust gap between the mass and informed population has widened by 12 points on last year to 15 points: trust in the four institutions stands at 34 percent among the mass population and 49 percent among the informed public.
Ross Rowbury, president and CEO of Edelman Japan, attributed the rise in confidence among the ‘informed’ tier to Japan’s stability relative to the events that have shaken similarly advanced economies. “For 30 years, people have been telling Japan [its performance] stinks,” he said. “But suddenly when the informed public look around, they see Japan isn’t doing so badly after all. It has stable leadership, a relatively stable economy and a very stable society.”
But he noted that 45 percent of Japanese people are uncertain whether the system is working or not, suggesting 2017 will be a critical year for institutions to prove their worth. (Globally, 53 percent already believe the system is broken.) Japan is also relatively unafraid of issues such as corruption, globalization, eroding social values, immigration and the pace of technological change. “The big question is will [Japan] decide next year that the system has failed us, or do they become more reassured,” Rowbury said. “We are at a critical crossroads.”
To be sure, there is still cause for concern. And while trust in media as an institution has fallen just one point between 2012 and 2017 to 27 percent, trust in traditional media plummeted 9 points to 32 percent. Search engines are now the most trusted source of information (up one point to 45 percent). 65 percent are also more likely to believe a search engine than a human editor. Given the trust placed in search engines, an earned media strategy without paid amplification is a waste of time, said Ben Boyd, Edelman’s New York-based president of practices and sectors.
Generally speaking, media institutions are seen as suspect, while leaked information is far more trusted than company press statements. Yet bias and disregard for facts are evident: two in five say they would support certain politicians even if they are found to have exaggerated; and 65 percent are unwilling to listen to people or organizations they disagree with.
Rowbury said ‘fake news’ is a definite concern in Japan, but added that people are highly aware of the issue given the extent to which it has been discussed in the US. He said people are also increasingly suspicious of curation sites, a feeling likely to have become more pronounced since the scandal involving DeNA late last year.
Japan also shows the lowest trust in CEOs of all markets surveyed (down 7 points to 18 percent). Boyd attributes this to missed expectations. 51 percent in Japan still expect business to lead societal improvement (the global figure is 75 percent), but it has failed to do so, he said. In Japan and globally, “we’re in an age where there’s hunger for leadership and historic seats of power are not coming through for people in the way they expected”, he said. In addition, companies have been slow to commit to improving societal issues. “It’s not about saving the world, just about doing something of benefit.”
Rowbury said the “invisible CEO” is still a problem in Japan. When a crisis hits, the CEO remains reluctant to engage with the public, he noted. When it comes to trust in companies, nearly 60 percent are more likely to believe spontaneous spokespeople; 57 percent favour blunt, outspoken leaders as opposed to those who are diplomatic; 71 percent trust a company’s social media issuances over its advertising; and regular employees are seen as the most reliable spokespeople for the majority of topics relating to their company and industry it operates in.
Boyd called employee engagement and building internal advocates the “lowest-hanging fruit”, but said companies are still far behind in this regard. But interest appears to be growing in Japan, suggesting companies are starting to acknowledge that the days of blind devotion from staff are over. “We’ve had more conversations around employee engagement over the past three months than in the past three years,” Rowbury said.
In conclusion, he suggested the global leadership vacuum puts Japan in a position to become more assertive on the global stage, and even become the leader of the free trade agenda. That is achievable, but Japanese institutions must ensure they lead their own people convincingly first.
Edelman’s study canvassed over 33,000 people across 28 countries between 13 October and 16 November.