Semiotics: A Japan Primer


Semiotics has long been established as a vital tool in marketing & brand research around the world, no doubt. But for years it has often been a “no-go zone” for many insights professionals commissioning research in Japan. That is changing as Japan and its material culture and symbolism at large, is becoming more well-known and celebrated around the world. So what made so many hesitant to undertake a semiology study here in the past? Well, there are a multitude of reasons but consider just a few and you’ll get the point:

  • not enough researchers who understand Semiology and thus, know how to execute it at brand or product level.
  • how on earth to comprehend the symbolic culture of a nation with so much predetermined formality; where even to begin?
  • cross-cultural comparisons seem too difficult between Japan and the West because the sign systems come from a completely different history & value set; (code for “Let’s skip Semiotics this go round!”)

Luckily for ‘outsiders’, Japanese are also humans who live in the modern world; not around it or above it! There is no great mystery to understanding Japan, it just takes an open mind. Given that premise it is most definitely possible to undertake successful semiotic research here. We’d even argue that Semiotics is now more vital than ever in a culture that has a highly formalized tradition of branding based on heritage, quality and craftsmanship that existed over a thousand years before global brands arrived on these islands. That in the face of a global culture that is ever more marching towards a technological one. It becomes important to understand things like subtext and paradox that focus groups and run-of-the-mill research can’t always provide.

Consider this: You could run 100 focus groups asking Japanese females why they use skin whiteners. You would get 1,000 answers related to health & beauty… and if you’re lucky, somebody might mention the immense pressure to have beautiful white skin from ads both Western and Japanese. All of this would be extremely informative and insightful. Yet you’d still be no closer to the truth. But a semiotic study could uncover some deeper truths about Japanese civilization as well as the multimillion dollar answer you were looking for! Skin whitening is anchored in Japanese civilization, hierarchy and status and goes back about almost 1,500 years. Japanese women who left family farms and became court ladies or members of the nobility used the symbol of white skin to define status above those women who worked in the fields and had more tanned skin. This tradition continued throughout history when geisha & maiko culture rose to prominence up until Western brands took hold here. So the conclusion reached from a semiological perspective is that: if you took away all the advertising and all the branding, skin whitening would still stand alone here as a cultural constant regardless. You’d have to take away some of the bedrock values of Japanese civilization in order to see whitening disappear. Advertising, marketing, the impact of Western values and brands are essentially incidental. Now in addition to a focus group, the dynamic shifts to something much more throughout-provoking and valuable than the original question. This information can help you change the conversation if you’re a researcher or a beauty brand.

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So with all that established, here are some tips to make Semiotics research go as smoothly as possible in the Land of the Rising Sun!

  1. Couple it with cultural insights and ethnography where possible: if you can understand the people and their (im)material culture firsthand, it becomes easier to decode symbolism and the Japanese approach to brands
  2. There’s no substitute for working with folks who are immersed in the culture here. If you skip out on this part, you might end up with a fancy report that sounds good to you… but lacks nuance and leads your brand/product/objective in the wrong direction completely. Happens all the time here!
  3. Make sure you always ask tons of ‘dumb questions’ and engage the researcher as much as you can. This is likely to uncover an entire universe of ‘unknown unknowns’ about Japanese branding you never thought possible!
  4. ‘Myths’ and ‘Meaning-making’ to explore how Japanese society believes in things like the media and advertising are more to difficult to ponder in respondent-driven methodologies… but can be explored in serious detail with Semiotics and fervent client discussions and debates!
  5. Know the limits of Semiotics: Not all of Japanese culture is symbolic and much of it predates language/signs etc. Some facets of the Japanese psyche and its modes of communication are said to be primal or even telepathic! Fascinating stuff!

For the final point above, this is more for Anthropology, ethnography and cultural insights methodologies. And we are well-prepared to delve into that whole chestnut as well! But here’s to putting Semiotics on your list of methodologies that are ripe for exploration in Japan!

by Jeffrey Brouse