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5.4 Esuno (Ethnography) Incorporated by Japanese Firms

In the previous section, I referred to a chart (Fig. 5.1) which was taken from a feature article of a popular Japanese business magazine. The article featured 'Marketing Ethnography' and headlines such as 'Get Insights from Observing Consumer Behaviour' and 'Major Firms Stepped Out into Ethnographic Marketing Research'. The headlines are followed by subheadings such as 'Close Coverage of Housewives and Youth', 'Observing and Finding Hints in Routine Behaviour and Conversation'. Esuno (ethnography) [1] has been becoming a new trend in the Japanese business scene.

As such, firms have started to use ethnography for their business. For example, Fujitsu who used ethnography since the early stages of the spread of ethnography in Japan contracted with Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the mid-2000s over anthropological methods. Firstly, they used ethnography for the improvement of workplaces as well as for educational purposes for SE (system engineers). Now they have launched ethnography for business solution services for other companies, government-affiliated bodies and NPO/NGOs. [2] Another Japanese company, Hakuhōdō, who has been collaborating with IDEO, the design consulting firm, and who contributed towards disseminating ethnography in Japanese business scene, established a special sector which provides ethnographic solution services.

Although some pioneering Japanese firms such as Fujitsu, Hakuhōdō and a few others practise decent ethnography (after much deliberation), the ethnography practised by other late starters looks like a 'jumble of wheat and chaff' since businessoriented ethnography is a relatively recent phenomena in Japan. Sometimes it looks entirely different from the ethnography that anthropologists know. For instance, on-the spot observation' is taken to mean 'ethnographic'. An example would be one-shot fixed point observation, using a video camera and an observer with no rapport – this was done as an attempt to reduce waste in the workplace. For instance, they set up a video camera in a restaurant's kitchen and tried to optimise work processes of chefs – among other things – by examining the amount of time they spent on each task. The research revealed that skilled chefs were spending too much time not on the actual work of cooking, but on tasks that did not require their expertise and which could be left to part-time staff. The result was visualised with a bar graph; managers were satisfied, having found indisputable evidence for needing to improve productivity. This seems to resemble the old-fashioned method of 'scientific management' or management engineering. [3]

  • [1] Japanese has no 'th' sound. Therefore, the word ethnography becomes esunogurafi (and more shortened esuno). Business people prefer to call it esuno.
  • [2] PARC, headquartered in Silicon Valley, opened its Tokyo office in spring 2013 and expanded its business and presence in Japan.
  • [3] I must add that I am not criticising the research performed by these firms here, since pursuing operational optimisation is a matter of course for profit-making organisations. In addition, there are differences between the old-fashioned method and the above observation. The video induces awareness of the researched people (the people whom are taken by video) and urges reflections over their work practice. What I want to describe is merely a gap between the 'ethnography' which is widely prevalent in Japanese business and academic ethnography.
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