John C Jay
Jun 7, 2016

Japan’s rebels are its future: John Jay

Fast Retailing's creative leader gives a very personal view on the prospects for Japan Inc and its brands, many of which are struggling to keep pace with globalisation.

John C Jay (photo: Johnny Le)
John C Jay (photo: Johnny Le)

“Let’s make our new Tokyo office the hothouse of the agency; we can do things there that we cannot do anywhere else in the world.”

That advice from Dan Wieden, co-founder of Wieden + Kennedy, as I left Portland in 1998, was the ultimate confidence builder. My move to Tokyo became one of the most extraordinary creative adventures of my life. An investment of six years living in this remarkable culture that continues to pay dividends of inspiration.

Fast forward to today. Japan is littered with storied brands fighting for survival. The digital revolution has not been kind to Japan’s aging boardrooms, which often lack emotional connection to a world with younger and faster ideas. Yet Japan continues to inspire the global creative community, despite the incredibly uncool efforts of the government to promote the country’s coolness. In effect, Japan has survived its own marketing.

Success can lead to predictability. At Uniqlo’s Tokyo headquarters, you see a message on the walls: “Re-invent everything.” This is the founder Tadashi Yanai’s battle cry. It is his demand for new thinking and action that gives Uniqlo a fighting chance for the future.

Only time will tell if Uniqlo will become a truly influential global brand but Yanai’s ability to dream big and to gamble makes him one of Japan’s most compelling business leaders. Today, he is investing major money, time and energy in changing his company culture to be more connected to the world and to help his people leap across the digital divide.

At the same time, another leader, Yoshiaki Fujimori, president and CEO of Lixil Group, has said that Japan lacks the environment to produce globally competitive people.

The challenges facing all Japanese brands is the ability to understand and operate with cultural context—to understand the social ways of others and how they think. Japan is highly educated, with talented people, but its lack of English proficiency hinders its ability to communicate and think like the competition on the global stage.

“A bilingual nation means a bilingual brain,” says Fujimori. ‘If Japan can nurture such people, those people will actively speak about Japan in the international community. If there is such a group of people at Davos and in the world, they will definitely help boost Japan’s presence."

Japan will survive. It must, because it has so much to give to the world. But many of its brands may not. Each culture has its own strengths and weaknesses. The US finds power through its diversity, while Japanese society finds this a challenge as it faces the future.

Diversity can generate empathy and understanding, enabling people to work across cultures and time zones. One of the necessities for success today is to understand the motivations and psychology of the global and local consumer—to be comfortable with generational differences often driven by technology. To know them not as a subset of data but as real people with real desires.

Japan is not yet good at this. No matter the technology, it remains an island in more than physical terms. Strength comes from its island psychology, its ability to go deep into its own culture. Yet much of Japan’s leadership remains disconnected from the world.

However, as a betting man, I will put my money on Japan and its future. This is a country with over 20,000 companies over 100 years old, and over 3100 older than 200: remarkable evidence of longevity, quality and an innate desire to master a craft, which fits perfectly in this digital and virtual age.

There is also a rising group of rebels in Japan who have international experience and interests. Technology has encouraged a new generation of entrepreneurs and these leaders have withstood the social pressures to conform. They have an inner strength and self-confidence in their abilities to lead others. They think outside Japan and have professional and personal relationships all over the world. These leaders are at the forefront of ensuring diversity within their corporate culture, looking to nurture and promote women to higher positions of influence and responsibilities. They are motivated to change because they have no choice.

John C Jay is president of global creative at Fast Retailing

This article was first published in Japanese on

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