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Region of contrasts: rising sun vs rising dragon

In this, the latest stop-off on In Brief's worldwide tour, Irwin Hankins contrasts qual in two very different countries: China and Japan

Let's start with a little history

Japan has a strong market research culture going back to the early 60s, led by the rise of post-war manufacturing and exporting. Formal research agencies grew from what was, initially, an internal activity among large Japanese companies. Many are now over 40 years" old and national household names.

China, by contrast, despite its astonishing recent economic and MR growth, had few formal agencies in this field until around 17 years ago, before which few capitalist businesses were around to buy research.

Initial industry growth was fed by the "conversion" of State economic and statistics gathering units into quasi MR units. More significant, however, was the advent of investment by foreign agencies, driven by awakening interest in China's market potential from their own clients.

So what affects the two countries' MR industries?

The Economy

The contrast between both markets is currently huge. China, even if it has taken a well publicised hit in the export-driven low-cost manufacturing sector, remains in growth mode. Major clients remain reasonably robust domestically, and there is little decline in foreign interest.

In Japan, unfortunately, it's a different story. Companies are, for the first time, laying off workers, consumers cutting spending, and the Government has lurched from one crisis to another recently without any effective remedial action. Worse, because the Japanese MR industry depends far more on domestic clients than international, business is seriously down. Qual is doing better, but only because it is seen to be cheaper.

Professional skills

In China, the strongest skills set agency-side is found mainly among the first wave of a small group of (now senior) managers from the late 80s/early 90s. More recently, they've been joined by a wave of imported expats. The latter, though professionally skilled, usually rely very much on local staff for cultural input and language. Qual is growing in China and takes a far larger slice of the "pie" than in Japan. This is fuelled by sophisticated clients who want to gain deeper insights, and those less sophisticated who like qual because it is fast, cheap and they can "see it with their own eyes".

Japan now has a broad base of trained and skilled market researchers (although biased towards quant), and a research culture which has long since spread to service sectors and government related organisations. Generally, professional standards are high, and ethics are strong within the context of Japanese business society.

The typical Japanese client, however, places far more faith in numbers, including those from the ubiquitous group interviews than from true qualitative.


This affects how one sells, how one recruits and in some ways, even how one interviews. In Japan there is generally a well absorbed understanding of the benefits and uses of MR among business people, despite a strong preference for numbers rather than "feelings". Even the general public is familiar with the concept of taking part in MR studies and are also well informed about issues like privacy and rights.

In China, however, the picture is rather different. Aside from perhaps the top 12 Chinese companies and the many joint-venture and foreign-invested ones there is little understanding among business owners of the benefits of MR, let alone of qual. Among the general public the picture is very varied. The urban elite in major cities may now be familiar with surveys, but elsewhere we often spend as much time explaining what we are doing as actually doing it.

Lower professional standards in China, along with a tendency for many city dwellers to seek easy money by any means, have however had one unfortunate consequence. Professional respondents have become a nightmare, far worse than in the West. They even use different names and multiple ID cards, an activity with which less reputable agencies connive. In Japan, while professional respondents exist, western clients can expect few issues if screening protocols are explicitly agreed. The stereotypical view of Japanese honesty is, generally, fairly valid. Many Japanese MR companies do, however, use people called "monitors" who are recruited for surveys regularly. That's why clients need to specify if they want "fresh" respondents, or at least place restrictions on how recently they participated.

Lifestyle and Culture

Along with differences, there are also similarities. Focus groups can be difficult to conduct successfully in both countries. Other forms of qual, in particular individual depth interviews, are often much more effective.

The Japanese find it extremely hard to express feelings or opinions, particularly to strangers. "Warm ups" take much longer here and very good (cross-cultural) moderators are needed as so much of the "truth" from groups here is the unspoken.

Furthermore, the Japanese are taught from a young age that for every situation or occurrence there is essentially a right or a wrong response, with nothing in between. So when asked "why", many are left groping for a response. Different techniques to those used in the West or even other Asian markets are often needed.

In China, qual receives a much higher proportion of spend, but some of the same problems surface. While the Chinese don't have quite the same communications problems in public as the Japanese, their character is still reserved and introverted. In addition, 50 years of post-revolutionary rule means that for older respondents, formulating independent opinions is problematic. Under this circumstance, the ability of moderators is crucial. Unfortunately, the industry's meteoric growth means that many moderators don't have such capabilities. The good ones are world class, but there are too few.

So, very different markets and challenges. Which is why, in China and Japan, choosing an agency with true cross-cultural abilities is so very critical.


Irwin Hankins
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009