A quest for information and data for business in Japan

Any successful business will require a quality information and data on its market, customers, competitors, and various aspects of the business environment. Although the competitiveness of business lies in the information and knowledge that others don’t have, there should be some fairness in access to basic information and data. If Japan is trying to open the market and grow its economy with foreign investors and entrepreneurs, more public information and data should be available in English.

In this article, I will share my findings on the business related information available in English and what’s not available. Then I will try to illustrate where we should make more efforts.

Improvement in a past decade

Finding relevant information about the market, consumers, and its trend is crucial for any business. Whether you are a researcher, an entrepreneur, or an investor, it is indispensable to have an access to basic information and statistic data to understand and analyze the market.

In this regard, Japan has lagged in developing a business-friendly environment for foreign investors and entrepreneurs.

A long history of dark years

For a long time, most of the public information in Japan was available only in Japanese. This is because there was little motivation to share the information in English for the Japanese government. The number of foreigners visiting Japan was minimal and volume of foreign direct investment was almost nothing compared to the size of the Japanese economy.

As a result, any foreigner willing to enter Japanese market had a hard time trying to get even a simple piece of data or information, which could be so easy for Japanese.

Hiring a consultant is too costly and learning Japanese is not an easy task. In fact, this alienation from basic information and data had been one of the major elements of non-tariff barriers to entering the market. It was dark years for many foreign investors and business people.

However, the situation has improved quite drastically in the past decade or so.

Available Source of Information and Data

The Government Statistics

The Japanese government has established e-Stat in 2008, a portal site for official statistics of Japan. This is a remarkable improvement as now people can find most of the government statistics in English in one stop.

e-Stat: Portal Site of Official Statistics of Japan/Statistic Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications

For those who are looking for more compact information, I recommend using the Japan Statistical Yearbook or the Statistical Handbook of Japan. You can both download from Statistical Bureau website.

The Japan Statistical Yearbook /Statistical Bureau
The Japan Statistical Yearbook is the comprehensive and systematic summary of basic statistical information of Japan covering wide-ranging fields such as Land, Population, Economy, Society, Culture, and so on. The yearbook covers all fields of statistics published by government and private organizations. 2017 volume has 30 fields, 537 tables, including the outline of the survey and explanation of terms.

The Statistical Handbook of Japan/Statistical Bureau
The Statistical Handbook of Japan 2016 is designed to give a clear and coherent overview of present-day Japan through statistics. It provides statistical tables, figures, maps, and photographs to portray conditions in modern-day Japan from different perspectives, including demographics, economic and social trends, and culture. The handbook is published annually in August or September.

White Papers and Reports

English translation of white papers and reports is another progress we’ve seen in a past decade. There are many white papers and reports published by the government and these documents contain rich information about the market, segment, and its trend. But those were hardly translated into English in the past: summary at the best. Now you can find the full translation in many of the Japanese white papers and reports. Here are some of the examples.

White Paper on Small and Medium Enterprises in Japan/METI
This white paper provides detailed information and insight into the environment and situation of SMEs in Japan. Full translation in English has been published, and shared online, since 2001.
METI: Ministry of Economic, Trade, and Industry

White Papers in Consumer Affairs/Consumer Affairs Agency
In this white paper, you can find insights and information about the Japanese consumers. It has been published in English since 2013. Although it is still a summary, and the detailed statistics are only available in Japanese, it is a useful source of information.

I’ve made a list of useful source of information at the end of this article for your interest. This list will give you some indications to find information and data you need for research and business planning for business in Japan.

Reports issued by private institutions

Private institutions and firms are also publishing some useful English translated reports. Although the variety and volume are limited, it likely to offer information and data more closely related to an industry or a sector.

Nomura Research Institute (NRI)
NRI is one of the leading think tank and system integrator in Japan. It issues a monthly publication of “NRI paper”, reports selected from those made by 11,000 consultants worldwide.
Daiwa Institute of Research (DIR)
While NRI focuses more on market and industry, DIR’s focus is on the macroeconomy. You can find monthly and quarterly reports on various indicators of the Japanese economy.
Dentsu/Knowledge and Data
Dentsu, the largest marketing and advertising firm in Japan, issues various useful reports on advertising and marketing trend in Japan. It’s also fun to read.

English Online Newspapers

The Japanese English news sites are also useful. There are several free English news sites where you can get the updated information about things happening in Japan. In fact, the number of publisher and richness of contents has improved significantly. Here are some of the links to free news sites for your interest.

The Asahi Shimbun|Asia & Japan Watch
It’s good to know that the English version is completely free of cost. But Japanese online site requires monthly fees to read the full articles
The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tokyo Business Today
Japan Today
The Japan Times

Limitations we see

Still many important reports in Japanese only

The situation for English written information has improved, however, there’s still a long way to go.

For example, Consumer Affair Agency has conducted following 4 reports in 2017 (each report combined with Excel sheet of detailed results of the survey). These reports could be a useful source for foreign investors and entrepreneurs seeking business in Japan.

These reports are only in Japanese. Therefore, if you can’t read Japanese, there’s no way to search it. As each report is too small to make a headline in news, you will not even know the existence.

Following is the two areas I see need further improvement.

#1 Sector and industry related information

There are many sectors and industry related reports available free in Japanese made by the government and by various industry associations and institutes.  Most of them are written in Japanese only and not translated into English.

While the general information about the demographics and the overall economy is necessary, the sector and industry information is what encourage investors and entrepreneurs to consider business in Japan seriously. Without being confident about access to information and data on the specific sector or industry, none will risk any money or time. Paying fees for a market report is one thing, but having a public information helps the start.

#2 Local information

In Japan, it’s rare to find a local government working on dispersing information in English (not just putting machine translation software). The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is one of the rare cases. They have many menus where foreigners can find useful information about living and doing business in Tokyo. However, such information is not much available in most of the local government.

Invest Tokyo:  A portal site for business in Tokyo

Even in the cities in Tokyo are not ready yet. So if you are to start a business in a certain area, you’ll likely have a very difficult time finding out the procedures, rules & regulations, and place to get support from local government.

Conclusion

More initiatives and contributions by individual are required

Unlike tourism, where we see the boom of foreign travelers coming to Japan, a business in Japan for foreigners is still a niche area. The number of players and variety is not there yet. We need more initiatives to promote Japan as a business destination, and it starts with sharing information. There should be more initiative such as Nippon.com, an initiative funded by the Nippon Foundation, to promote understanding about Japan.

And I also expect more Japanese individuals to contribute. If we truly strive for becoming an international member, we cannot just wait until the government or the large foundations to act. We individuals, no matter how small, also could to find ways to make our society more friendly for international business.

I do understand that as much as it is challenging for foreigners to enter Japan, it could be as challenging for Japanese to work with foreign investors and entrepreneurs. But we should try to find the middle ground for collaboration. Presenting information and data in English is a good start.

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