An article I wrote following a piece of research we conducted at work with a cross-section of people in Tokyo, six weeks after the quake. It has also been published online at RW Connect.

I found the results quite surprising…

How far has the earth really moved in Tokyo?

On March 11th, only two months after leaving London to start a new life in Tokyo and just one week into my new job at Sugata Research, Japan was hit by the biggest earthquake in its recorded history.

The effects of the quake were felt powerfully in Tokyo and will go down as perhaps the most memorable five minutes of my life so far. From media reports at the time it was clear that many others were also thinking about the significance of the quake, as a whole slew of articles appeared in both the foreign and local press predicting that the event would mark some kind of turning point for people in Japan.

It was with this in mind that our mixed team of local and ex-pat researcher set up a series of 8 informal consumer workshop groups in mid-April amongst students, working adults, parents and housewives. Our aim was to understand how people were feeling about the quake six weeks on. Had the event been a turning point for Japanese consumers?

The results weren’t what I – an Englishman new to Japan – were expecting but were a little less of a surprise to some of my Japanese colleagues.

‘Our’ Disaster?

Importantly, none of our respondents lost close ones in the disaster and only a couple had family living near to the affected areas. Despite that there was still something that made this earthquake feel different, even amongst those who had strong memories of the quake in Kobe in the early 90s. There was of course a strong awareness that Tokyo had not really been affected. But even so this felt in part at least, like ‘our’ disaster.

This feeling stemmed from the experience of the initial shock, a ‘flashbulb moment’ that both tied our audience together and gave each individual their own story to tell. It has been kept alive even since by the after-effects: ongoing tremors, rolling blackouts, worries about the damaged nuclear reactors 200kms away in Fukushima, shortages of some goods in shops, the need to conserve energy, reduced train services.

The 24/7 media coverage played a key role in shaping perceptions at this early stage, making the devastating effects further North feel closer and amplifying fears in Tokyo, with many blaming the coverage on widespread panic buying.

And there’s no doubt that in the first few weeks following the quake, for many consumers both behavior and attitudes did change significantly – with government statistics showing an 8.5% drop in consumer spending nationwide.

Beyond ‘jishuku

The Japanese term jishuku, best translated as ‘self-restraint’, came up a lot during the course of our research as a way to explain this drop in spending – but behind the word lies a multitude of feelings and motivations.

The reaction was definitely to some extent a show of solidarity with those in the affected areas. There was a sense of national pride in the way people were reacting in the images on TV and a strong desire to do something to help. Actually visiting the affected areas was not a mainstream option with the government advising against it but, by saving electricity and living a more frugal life, people were able to feel they were doing something to help.

In part, the response was driven by very real fears about what might happen in Tokyo – further quakes, possible nuclear fallout from Fukushima, potential economic consequences. For many going out to have a good time or shopping for fun just didn’t seem important or appropriate.

Watching the 24/7 media coverage of the devastating effects further north in Tohoku and the surrounding areas also prompted a temporary reassessment of values for some. Watching how the quake had washed away people’s possessions made material things seem less important. The initial fear of the quake reinforced the importance of family and friends. People report purposefully spending more time with loved ones.

Against all this it’s also important to remember the practical barriers. Throughout much of March the shops were still closing early and there was a reduced train service. For many shopping just wasn’t an option.

Shopping for Japan

At around the beginning of April, there seems to have been a shift in behaviour. Again, this is a shift that took place at multiple levels.

At one level, against a backdrop of a reduction in media coverage and an end to the much of the disruption in Tokyo, consumers just appear to have got tired of worrying. April in Japan is cherry-blossom season and the start of the New Year, a traditional time of renewal that seems to have acted as a prompt for many of our consumers, now distanced from the actual effects of the quake, to get their lives back to normal and start enjoying themselves a bit again.

Alongside this, messages started to filter through the media that the best thing people could do to help was keep the economy going, in part spreading via social media from producers in the affected areas. As politicians continued to call for jishuku, there was a backlash against the phenomenon from some consumers, angry at attempts to enforce something that they felt should be self-enforced and questioning the economic implications for economic recovery.

In reality this process was gradual and affected different consumers in different ways, with some still in a jishuku mood even 6 weeks on but, as March turned into April, the general trend amongst our audience was to get out spending again. In fact, many claim to have been shopping more than normal, giving themselves a boost and at the same time feeling good for doing what they could to help keep the economy going.

Importantly, there were signs of shifts in how consumers were spending. Some were using their consumer choices to try and maximise the sense that they were helping, buying anything sourced from the regions affected by the tsunami or from the numerous brands that were tapping into the trend by promising to donate some of their profits to relief efforts. There were also clear trends towards purchases that could be enjoyed in the moment and give an immediate mood boost. This meant more spending on inexpensive treats or intangible experiences rather than status-based material items. With uncertainty about the future still in the air, some we spoke to were also still putting big purchases – such as white goods, cars or properties – on hold.

How far has the earth really moved in Tokyo?

The longer-term consequences of the quake for those living in Tokyo are difficult to predict but there are perhaps some lessons to learn from the response we were receiving six weeks on.

The individuals who had been most negatively affected by the quake were those who had felt the effects at work. A few of our working guys had seen serious drops in business and were worried about the future of their own jobs and of the Japanese economy as a whole, with one describing it as like “another Lehmans”. If there are further negative economic consequences from the most expensive natural disaster in history, then these may well be a spur to deeper changes in behaviour and attitudes. Whilst the big events may be important, the immediate jolt to attitudes that followed the quake seems to be fading and it will be the tangible effects on everyday lives left that remain that really matter.

Beyond economic fears, the ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima means a continued need to conserve energy, a behaviour that most seem happy to engage with, especially as it enables them to feel that they’re doing their bit to contribute to relief efforts. It also dovetails well with the pre-existing ‘eco’ trend in Japan, with many consumers claiming that the need to save had highlighted how wasteful they were being previously. Whether these changes in attitude are really post-rationalisation is still an open question but perhaps behaviour learnt now will turn into habits that last beyond the current need to save energy. Whatever the case, the demand for consumer goods that help save energy only looks set to grow.

For the most part though, as those in the affected areas start the struggle to piece their lives back together, people in Tokyo are now able to get back to their lives much as they were before the quake and with this there seems to be a return to everyday attitudes. To my Japanese colleagues this is perhaps less of a surprise. Despite the scale of the tragedy, natural disasters are part of Japan’s history and run to the core of the national psyche. This has created a somewhat fatalistic streak and an acceptance that some aspects of life are out of control, arguably making it easier to move on but at the same time limiting the potential scope of changes that could follow such an event.

As we get back to a busy schedule of projects at Sugata and everyday pressures begin to mount up again, I can see parallels with my own experience. Looking back on the period now, on a personal level, it feels more like a milestone than a turning point.

With this in mind, perhaps the most interesting lesson from our research is not that it will have a lasting effect on attitudes in Tokyo, although we may still see some of those. Perhaps the more important insight is that the people here – with the support of government and the media – will need to work hard to keep reminding themselves of the very real tragedy in Tohoku to ensure that they don’t forget, even as their own lives return to normal.

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