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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Breaking through

Working with Japanese creatives

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Lost in Translation?
Lost in Translation?

Creatives and clients, with account service caught in the middle. Around the world, wherever advertising is made, their quarrels are legend. Japan is no exception.

On one side are seers and shamans whose search for the new and original may lead in directions that seem quite mad. In their ceaseless search for something new, creatives who fail to probe the limits of sense and taste are not doing the job their clients should be demanding. In advertising, job No. 1 is impact, and safe too often is dull—is dead.

On the other side are the makers and guardians of corporate policy. Managers on the client side must check and check again to be sure that ads are in line with marketing strategy and consistent with brand and corporate image. Their nightmare is going too far, causing a scandal that damages the business for which they are held responsible.

The problem on both sides is keeping the quarrel contained and tapping the tensions it generates to power creation of more effective ads. When creatives and clients share a common language and culture, finding an answer is hard enough. When creatives are Japanese and the clients are not, the difficulties may seem overwhelming. My argument here is, however, one of hope. With patience, cunning and the right preparation, they can be overcome.

In what follows, we will look first at the typical process by which Japanese creatives and their non-Japanese clients get to know each other. (Knowing where you are in this process is vital to dealing effectively with the issues that come up.) We will then examine some of the ways in which differences in language and culture make problems worse. Finally, when the outlook is dark indeed, I will offer a few suggestions for finding solutions and preventing problems before they occur.

Too many foreign corporations take the attitude, 'We're not paying you to go over there and learn a language. We're paying you to do a job.' Why do they not realize that language is part of a job?

Getting from #@!!#%&!! to Ads That Satisfy

It often starts here. A foreign marketing manager arrives in Japan. The agency assigns a creative team to work on his account. He is new to Japan. They are new to working with non-Japanese. If he works for a major, multinational corporation, he comes equipped with clear corporate guidelines for making good advertising. His new creative team is eager to show him "How it's done in Japan." Both are quickly disillusioned.

He is upset by their seeming inability to come up with ideas that fit corporate strategies and present them in ways that he (and his bosses back home) will find convincing. On their side, the Japanese creative team is fuming. "Doesn't the stupid gaijin realize that this is Japan!"

What the foreign manager asked for were top-flight creatives who have made their mark working for Japanese clients. It may seem instead that what he got were amateurs who don't know their business at all. On their side, if they are top-flight creatives—and especially if they work for a large agency—they see themselves, quite properly, as members of an elite. "Doesn’t this stupid gaijin know who he’s talking to?" 

If the team's members are real prima donnas, their impulse at this point is to walk out. "I don't have to put up with this! Find someone else to do it." And, if they are top-flight, yes, they can get away with it. First-class creative talent is as rare in Japan as anywhere else, and those who have it are pampered. Yes, the foreign manager can find people who are easier to work with. The results are rarely exciting.

Stage two occurs when the team doesn't walk away. Instead its members realize that the gaijin is hopelessly rikutsuppoi, which is to say, logical in a nasty, rigid, narrow-minded sort of way. "OK," they say. "Shiyou ga nai" ( It can’t be helped), we'll do it his way.

At this point, they start, in effect, working to rule. The result is check-list advertising. It satisfies the criteria laid down by corporate guidelines. In a simplistic, mechanical way it conforms to corporate strategy. It is generally less than exciting, often simply dull.

The ideal, of course, is to reach stage three. Here the creative team has learned and accepted the limits imposed by corporate strategy but is fired up and producing great ideas within them. They have learned that working with a foreign client is remarkably like writing haiku, where you only have seventeen syllables, their pattern is fixed, and, oh yes, you must include the appropriate words for the season.

The framework is rigid, the demands obsessive, the challenge enormous. The possibilities are endless.

When insights and emotions merge in precisely the right images, the result is exciting advertising. The problem, of course, is getting there. Language and culture stand in the way.

Language, It’s a Problem

When you live and work in Japan, you will soon come to realize the awful truth of Jackson Huddleston's introduction to Gaijin Kaisha: Running a Foreign Business in Japan.

Too many foreign corporations take the attitude, "We're not paying you to go over there and learn a language. We're paying you to do a job." Why do they not realize that language is part of a job? Would any foreign CEO in the United States go to work without reading the Wall Street Journal? I doubt it. 

Every day in Japan, 99 percent of the foreign general managers go to work without knowing what is in the current Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the principal economic newspaper in Japan. Nor can they understand the television news, advertisements, or social commentary.

Who would run a business in the United States without knowing English, or a business in Paris without knowing French, and without being able to communicate with employees in their native language? Is it out of ignorance or arrogance that we think we can run businesses successfully as illiterates in the second most important economy in the world?

Huddleston is speaking to CEOs. For their marketing managers, whose task is effective communication in the Japanese language, the problem is, if anything, worse. Consider a few examples.

Manager A has finally decided that the only way to get the ad campaign he wants is to brief the agency's Japanese creatives directly. His material is carefully organized; his presentation is forceful. Then he asks for questions. If he's lucky he may get one or two.

He makes a point of asking "Do you understand?" "Yes," they say. "Yes, we understand," is what he thought they said. "Yes, we’re listening," is all that they actually said. He is, then, understandably, angry when the agency's next presentation is wildly out of line with what he thought were the clear directions he gave them.

Manager B has chosen an indirect approach. She has spoken to her Japanese staff and given them the job of briefing the agency. They have met with the agency's account service people, who have then gone back to the agency to brief the creatives. She, too, is justifiably angry when the agency’s presentation seems wildly off strategy.

On the whole my sympathies lie with Manager A. The indirect approach adopted by Manager B ensures that translation problems will be compounded as each of the people involved in the chain tries to communicate what it is they think they heard. (The often-asserted Japanese preference for non-verbal communication frequently results in missing details, some of which are vital points. Preventing this from happening is one of the principal functions of what may seem to foreign managers to be the endless meetings at which nothing much gets done but confirming what has been said before.)

I suspect, however, that Manager A simply said too much, too quickly. His presentation style was perfect for the bosses he needs to please back home. He was, however, misled by the token questions he heard, which, more often than not, came from account executives chosen to work with him because they "speak his language."

Had he imagined himself hearing the same presentation in Japanese, while getting only a rough synopsis of what he said in his own language, he would have realized that much of what he wanted to say, while it might have been said very well indeed, was not heard by those to whom he was speaking. He should also be aware that the way in which he made his presentation created, in effect, a classroom situation.

And in Japanese schools the one thing you certainly learn is not to question the teacher.

For Manager C all this is history. The agency has come up with what seem to be plausible ideas, not perfect perhaps, but possible. His problem is now to choose between them. Since he doesn't read Japanese himself, he is forced to rely on translations in making his judgements. But what, in fact, is the real relation between the translation and the Japanese copy he approves for publication?

The Japanese copy may be wonderful, the translation inept. The reverse is also possible. If the agency employs a translator who is both a native speaker of the language into which the translation is made and is also a good writer, the translation may be more interesting than the Japanese original. Is the Japanese copywriter brilliant? Or has he gone too far? Is what he has written appropriate for the audience to whom he is speaking? Or boring, offensive, or worse? Who is to say? That's the crunch.

The agency will do its best to sell its creative product. Let the buyer beware. It would seem only natural then for the foreign manager to depend on his Japanese staff. But what if his staff and the agency disagree?  What if his staff disagree among themselves? One experienced manager I know says ruefully that given a Japanese headline and 10 Japanese, he is sure to hear 20 opinions. And the knowledge he needs to choose among them is more knowledge of culture than of language per se.

Culture, What Are We Talking About?

Culture is what we take for granted. Therein lies the problem. Whenever one person makes assumptions not shared by another, there is potential for conflict. In the case of the foreign manager and the Japanese creative team, the root of the problem is often what one assumes the other knows and thus doesn't bother to explain—in a way that the other can grasp. Finding that way is the key to working together smoothly.

On the side of the foreign manager, nothing is more frustrating than hearing people say, "But, this is Japan." In a conflict situation "Japan" is a word that literally means, "You don't understand, you can't understand. Shut up and do what I want you to do." And no manager worthy of the name should let anyone get away with that.

The question is how to counter the claim without making everyone angry and making the situation worse. The place to begin is to ask yourself, "What is this 'Japan' we are talking about? What is it that's being taken for granted by them that I don’t understand yet?"

It is possible that the answer lies somewhere in Japanology, in the unceasing flood of articles and books that scholars and journalists write about Japan, or in the remarks that "old Japan hands" like to offer to newcomers. There is much of value here. Knowing, for example, that "sauce" goes on fried foods but not on sushi can save you from ruining a good meal and embarrassing yourself in front of Japanese colleagues.

Knowing that promotion to kacho  (section chief) is a key step up on a Japanese manager's career ladder can help you make sense of a recent commercial for beer. Knowing that Japan is a "vertical society" in which the group to which a person belongs is likely to be more important to him  than sharing a certain professional skill with members of other groups illuminates Japanese labour relations.

The examples are endless, and precisely because they are so exotic they attract the attention of foreigners when they start to think about Japan. They are only sometimes relevant to what creatives are trying to do. They only become significant when someone thinks he has found a new twist on something he takes to be common sense.

The Japanese creative's judgement more often reflects a sense of what is trendy and fashionable, not just in Japan but, more often than not, in the international worlds of fashion, film and music to which he or she is very much attuned. As much or more than other Japanese, Japanese creatives devour information about the latest trends. And their appetite is largely satisfied by mass media whose uniformity is striking.

This last point is vital. The result is a constantly moving wave of common knowledge that is typically months or years ahead of the Japanologists' efforts to grasp what is going on in Japan. If the foreign manager had the time as well as the language skills to keep up with what is going on, he, too, would share that knowledge. He, too, would have a sense of what is coming in and what is going out. Dealing with the fact that he doesn't is one of his most pressing problems.

His problems may be compounded by the ages of the people he's working with. In Japan as in other parts of the world, generation gaps are growing. The greying corporate warriors who rebuilt Japan after World War II grew up in a different world from that of their children and grandchildren.

A man in his fifties may remember his first drink of Coca-Cola, a gift from a GI. To him a Coke is, above all, an American drink. A woman in her twenties grew up with Coke vending machines across from her elementary school. She is pleasantly surprised when she travels abroad to find that Americans drink Coke, too. 

That same man remembers when German automobiles were an almost unattainable peak of automotive perfection. His son has grown up in a world where Japanese cars set quality standards, and some offer longer lists of features.

"All right," the foreign manager says, "I can't be expected to know these things. It's up to you, the agency, to tell me what's going on here. And your presentations? You call these presentations!"

First, let's remember what we've just learned. There's a lot they assume is common knowledge. It isn't common knowledge to you, but it is, or at least they assume it is, for their other, i.e., Japanese, clients. It may be worth pondering, too, what effects the '80s had on Japanese advertising. The economy was booming. Everybody’s sales were going up. People played their hunches, tried things out, had a good time.

The disciplines needed to build an image and hold on to market share were not much in evidence. When you need to persuade people who don’t have the glorious freedom to choose whatever they feel like, that’s when you need carefully planned presentations. Who were those people?

In Search of Solutions

First, forget about who is to blame. The issue is how to reach stage three and develop a working relationship that produces great advertising for one of the world's most important markets. Blame doesn't help. Asking questions does.

Yes, you are busy. Yes, it seems to take much, much longer to achieve the results you want than it would back home. At least for the first year or two that is probably unavoidable. The question is how to use effectively all that extra time it takes.

Resign yourself to moving slowly—but make every step count. If they won't ask you questions, you can ask them questions. Ask about everything. Why that word? That colour? That gesture? Why a woman instead of a man? Why not younger? Older? Bigger? Smaller?

You can win a lot of respect by showing a craftsman’s concern for details. By challenging assumptions, you can find out, finally, what they are. You can also gradually train people to provide you with more of the information you need.

Listen for useful Japanese phrases. One of the best is, "Mou sukoshi,…nanika,…hoshii…,"  which is to say, "I'm not sure just what, but I want a little something more." It's a gentle but very effective way to indicate dissatisfaction and motivate people to think again.

Above all—be very specific about the form of the presentation you want to see. Better still provide an example, on paper, a model the team can work with. These are your assumptions, a part of your corporate culture that you may take for granted. To them they may be alien. So don't just give them the model. Go over it with them, step-by-step.

And don't assume that "Yes (we're listening)" means "Yes (we understand)." Your patience will be sorely tried. Stage one may be awful, stage two depressing. Reaching stage three will be all the sweeter.


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