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Every morning for the past three weeks I’ve been waking up and hoping for a bit of good news from Japan. I’m not quite sure what this particular bit of good news would sound or look like, but I’ve found myself in front of my screen by 05.00 London time scanning the websites of The Mainichi Daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, NHK and the BBC wishing for a “breaking news” banner with a headline flashing “Fukushima plant under control”, “All homeless to be re-housed by late spring” or “Japanese consumers go on spending spree to bolster economy”. Sadly no such headlines have greeted me during my daily news trawl.

I flew into Tokyo shortly after the quake and was unsettled by the nervous calm that had blanketed the city. Outwardly everything was normal, but on the inside you could feel a rising sense of panic as western media organisations whipped people into a frenzy with their radiation reports. Multinationals ordered their top executives to leave the country and rolling power cuts started to affect the retail and restaurant metabolism of the city.

By day my meetings with Japanese companies and colleagues went off as normal and, by night, I chatted to my fellow editors about a PR story spinning out of control. In the days that followed, much was written in dailies and business weeklies about the determination of the Japanese people, their calm reserve and how Japan would have little trouble getting things back on track. Over a month later and it’s clear that, while much can be done to prepare and rehearse for such events, you need professional players to manage such a set of crises.

If it’s the nation’s deeply held values of selflessness and pitching-in that have so far helped the country keep a sense of calm and order in hardest hit areas of Miyagi and the shelters throughout the Tohoku region, some other traits and institutions threaten to slow progress and hold the country back. Just as the sakura blossom at this time every year, April also marks a time of corporate transition when a great game of musical chairs happens in companies large and small. At airlines, catering managers find themselves promoted to marketing directors; at automotive offices in Nagoya, supply chain executives suddenly become regional sales managers assigned to Jakarta; and at the HQ of a major bank in Marunouchi a CEO’s assistant can find himself assigned to the audit office.

While some would argue this is great for corporate culture as it lets everyone learn about every aspect of the business, it only takes a little time in the boardrooms of some companies to recognise there’s a glaring lack of experience on the part of many managers as they’ve been moved to a department that doesn’t interest them or is beyond their managerial grasp. This unique corporate culture has created an environment with legions of jacks-of-all-trades and even more masters with no marketable skill-set – though our Expo in this issue on Living National Treasures is perhaps an example for more of Japan Inc to follow.

The result is that this type of “management” behaviour has become institutionalised at the highest level of government, where prime ministers change with the seasons and the electorate seems comfortable with it. When everything and everyone follows the script, this might work brilliantly, but the triple disasters that hit Japan have put on show (and trial) a prime minister lacking in leadership skills.

Who knows what became of the TEPCO president during the Fukushima crisis? If they’ve failed the PR and leadership test with flying colours, they alone shouldn’t shoulder the blame. The often-heard phrases “doing it the Japanese way” or “needs to be adapted for Japan” to many ears – Japanese included – are now shorthand for “we’re too stubborn and slow moving to change” and “we can’t be bothered to learn English”. This culture has left Japan almost incapable of marketing itself.

Where many countries and companies succeed on slick marketing and razor-sharp PR initiatives alone, to Japan’s credit its brands have succeeded thanks to honest hard work, good products and exceptional quality – not award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns.

This magazine has long maintained that Japan would be a force to reckon with if it knew how to market itself. But unfortunately it’s been unable to field credible frontmen or women throughout this crisis and the Cool Japan campaign featuring an ageing boy band in white suits is unlikely to inspire the world.

Four years ago we set up a bureau in Tokyo because we believed in the unrecognised and undervalued power that Japan wielded as the world’s second biggest economy. Since then, we’ve shown how it’s a world leader in urban development projects, unrivalled as a source for retail inspiration, an unmatched innovator in textile technology, at the forefront of high-speed rail initiatives and, perhaps most importantly, a nation that places enormous value in fine craftsmanship and ancient manufacturing techniques.

At the same time, we’ve also seen Japan slip to the number three position on the economic scale, its national carrier collapse and its young people retreat within its own borders. We still believe Japan is not only undervalued and unrecognised for so many of its contributions to the global economy, the cultural stage and the design world – it’s also misunderstood.

The international media can do its bit to cover Japan in greater depth and detail, and go beyond the tired news cycle of a flat Nikkei, weird happenings in Akihabara and robots. Japan has challenging task of sharpening its marketing and PR skills on both a corporate and government level, while keeping focused on its rehabilitation and reconstruction effort.

The recovery process: an action plan

For the moment, the Japanese government needs to focus its efforts and resources on fixing the situation at Fukushima, ensuring there’s first-rate housing for the homeless, reuniting families, offering maximum care and comfort to the injured, and implementing assistance programmes to everyone from farmers and gifted shirt-makers to single mothers. Soon, however, it might want to start thinking about how it performed in front of the media and its own citizens (not particularly well) and take a proactive stance to restore eroded public confidence and create a fresh mood of confidence. The following might be a starting point:

  1. Hire a top PR team and get them to work up a communications plan for internal and external affairs and also cast for a multilingual team of the best spokespeople.

  2. Employ a globally minded agency to develop a series of campaigns to sell Japanese innovation, stimulate inward investment and also bolster the tourism industry.

  3. Get that same agency to encourage more Japanese to study, work and travel abroad.

  4. Put English higher up on the national curriculum and also encourage more companies to demand higher English proficiency.

  5. Launch a short term “buy Japanese, buy now” programme to get people back into shops, into trains, sitting in restaurants and booking into ryokans.

  6. Bid for the Olympics again.

  7. Develop Asia’s most respected government and diplomacy school to groom a new generation of leaders and civil servants for the national and global stage.

  8. Put more effort into developing and exporting service brands – JR-East, Tokyu, ANA, Transit General, Lawson.

  9. Strengthen NHK’s output and make it Asia-Pacific’s major broadcast news player. This means stronger presenters, better producers, more relevant shows and better graphics.

  10. Put an emphasis on bolstering its small- and medium-sized specialist and craft focused enterprises. These will become a huge asset in an increasingly automated, mass manufacturing world.

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