What Japanese Consumers Think, Matters

THE reactions from ordinary Japanese to George Bush's recent visit indicate there is a potential market for United States goods in Japan. However, these same reactions also reveal that trade agreements between the two governments are only a first step to American success in selling to Japan.

Japanese people generally hold a favorable attitude toward the US and looked forward to President Bush's December visit as a confirmation of close Japanese-American ties. While the Japanese media has coined the term "kenbei" (repugnance for the US) and suggested that this feeling is on the increase, the word is not in common use. It is rare to encounter even mild ill-will toward America or Americans. At the same time, there's little awareness that for many Americans the feeling is not mutual. The demise of the Soviet Union has moved Japan and economic issues to the forefront as the primary challenge facing the US.

When the revised agenda for the January visit was announced, there was widespread dismay that the purpose of the trip had been downgraded from joint planning for the future to a potentially adversarial political agenda focused on trade issues. However, once the president arrived, people seemed interested in the trade aspects of the discussions.

During the New Year's holidays that preceded the Bush visit, a popular Japanese television show asked people to comment on how they thought the coming year would affect their family. The majority reply: "This year things will get worse." They saw themselves running harder but staying in the same place. For many people the Bush agenda could potentially help their standard of living.

Two issues address-ed in the talks were an increase in imports of American automobiles and the opening of the rice market. It is clear from the reaction these issues generated among people in Japan that the success of the Bush mission depends on American attention to the perceptions and concerns of "average" Japanese.

The first reaction to the idea of buying an American car is usually that it would be too big for narrow Japanese roads and cramped parking spaces, followed by a description of its low fuel efficiency (gasoline in Japan sells for close to $5 a gallon) and tendency to break down. No one mentions American auto safety features. Since very few people have experience with recent model American cars, perceptions are based on hearsay or experience with a product some years ago.

Japanese perceptions of American products, however uninformed, are fundamental to the success or failure of American efforts to open the Japanese market. What people perceive to be true might as well be true. People act on their perceptions. Although few Japanese have tasted rice grown in the US, the general perception is that it probably won't taste as good as Japanese rice. This impression presents a challenge to US rice producers and marketers that goes beyond the issue of Japanese government regulati on of rice imports.

In addition to the influence of perceptions, practical concerns also influence receptivity to American-made goods. This is also clear from questions arising in relation to imported cars:

* Due to legal restrictions on the purchase of a car if one does not have an off-street parking space, many auto dealers have included the location of parking for potential customers. Will the sellers of American cars provide the same service?

* To make a sale, Japanese car salesmen track down leads on new or former customers who may be getting ready to buy a car and visit them. In some cases the visits continue for several years with the salesman stopping by periodically to provide an update on new models and features. Will dealers of American cars show this interest and dedication?

* In many ways the situation is comparable to the early days of Japanese imports in the US. Many people say they would hesitate to buy because of worries about the availability of parts and service - especially when a buyer is faced every two years with the "shaken," a major auto inspection done by the dealer and taking several days to complete. Will there be a reliable dealer nearby?

There can be a market for American-made goods in Japan. The president's visit has not solved the trade imbalance issue, for no single event can do that, but it has considerably increased the climate of opportunity for American business. The ultimate success of the Bush effort will depend on how well US business and industry understand and respond to the concerns and perceptions of people living in Japan. Are American corporations willing - and able - to make that effort?

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