Trek recap: Experiencing Japanese business and culture in 10 days
By Munazza Khan, Johnson Cornell Tech MBA ’19 and Emerging Markets Institute Fellow
As a Johnson Cornell Tech MBA, I had the opportunity to participate in a 10-day international study trip to Japan with fellow Cornell Tech and Two-Year MBA students in Ithaca. Johnson treks are designed to provide students with insight into business contexts and practices in international markets, with the option of choosing between several treks, including China, Israel, and Brazil. I grew up in Bangladesh and have traveled around parts of Southeast Asia in the past, but I was excited to experience East Asia for the first time through the Japan trek. Along with some of my classmates, I took advantage of the opportunity to spend five days in Seoul, South Korea, prior to the official Japan trek.
The Japan trek started in Fukuoka, and over 10 days we made our way up to Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo. We also spent some time in Hakone, where we enjoyed spectacular views of Mount Fuji, and Karuizawa, a resort town only an hour away from Tokyo by train. The trip encompassed a mix of professional, cultural, and other local experiences, which helped us learn about the country from a business and cultural perspective. Through group visits to companies such as Volvo, Dentsu, Lawson, and Kewpie, I was able to develop a better understanding of the intricacies of doing business in Japan.
Shifting Japanese demographics are impacting the economy
As a result of improvements in life expectancy and a decline in birth rates, Japanese demographics have shifted. This change has impacted the country’s economic landscape, and many businesses are taking measures to adapt. While there are challenges associated with this trend, many companies see a business opportunity. One of the companies we visited was Lawson—a convenience store franchise chain based in Japan—which has made major readjustments to their stores to cater to the needs of Japan’s elderly communities. Not only have they increased their stock of basic products that the elderly need in their day-to-day lives, but they have also been moving toward more digital infrastructure that makes it easier for senior citizens to be employed at Lawson stores.
Other societal changes such as an increasing number of women in the workforce are also altering demand patterns in Japan. There is an increasing demand for convenient ready-made meals, and brands such as Lawson and Kewpie are developing their product lines to meet this demand.
A competitive market and evolving startup scene
During a business visit with Volvo, we learned how the Swedish car company successfully penetrated a market that has been historically difficult for many foreign brands to access. Adapting to local needs is an essential step in succeeding in the Japanese market as a foreign brand, and Volvo has been able to position itself as a reliable brand that meets the needs of local consumers. For foreign companies interested in expanding into Japan, building a strategy around effective localization, as well as being aware of local cultural norms, is of paramount importance.
Japan’s startup ecosystem has grown remarkably over the last five years. During a visit to Fukuoka Growth Next — a public-private collaborative startup support facility designed to incubate and grow startups — we learned how the organization nurtures early-stage startups in Fukuoka with hopes of establishing the city as a recognized tech hub within Japan.
We also visited teamLab, a digital art collective based in Japan, which brings together artists, animators, engineers, and designers to build experiences that combine art and technology. Our visit to the teamLab Borderless Museum in Odaiba was certainly a highlight, where we experienced teamLab’s innovative creations in digital art.
As the startup culture evolves, the Japanese government has recently relaxed policies to encourage more foreign entrepreneurs coming into the country. If entrepreneurs manage to effectively balance culture and strategy, the Japanese market holds the potential for many business opportunities.
The Japan trek taught me not only about Japan’s rich culture, history, and cuisine, but also about its very complex business environment. Johnson treks are an incredible opportunity for students to learn about business in a different country and to engage with peers from different Johnson MBA programs.
About Munazza Khan, Johnson Cornell Tech MBA ’19
Khan is an MBA student at Cornell Tech, based in New York City. Prior to Cornell, she lived in Boston and worked on the analytics team at a consumer insights software company called Crimson Hexagon. She holds a BA in economics and international relations from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.