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5.4.2 Ethnography with Zero Field Visit

Next I will describe a corporate ethnography from an article which introduces ethnography as a business method by Japan's second-largest toiletries maker company. 'Ethnography: Through the Accumulation of In-Depth Qualitative Researches Lead Them to Focus Invisible Dirty-ness'. In the article it says 'ethnography usually involves home-visits, but the company didn't dare conduct home visits. Instead of home-visits, in-house researchers of the company asked housewives to photograph the space where their washing machines stood. Visiting and performing observations takes time and effort'. Therefore, their method of marketing research was to 'read' the lives of these housewives from the photos. 'It can be said that when the focus is narrowed down to something like washing or cooking, for example, it is reasonable and efficient' (Shimada and Ueki 2010: 44–45). In this case, the photoreading method was combined with FGI (focus group interview), instead of paying home visits.

5.4.3 The Relationship Between the Appropriation of Ethnography and Japanese-Style Management

The characteristics of Japanese corporatism and Japanese-style business management have been discussed for several decades (Abegglen 1958; Dore 1973, 2000; Abegglen and Stalk 1985). Although I was unable to fully develop research results on cross-cultural differences regarding the acceptance and usage of ethnography, I attempt to touch on this topic – as a preliminary consideration – for further discussion in the future.

Based on previous research on Japanese-style management, it is possible to list three main characteristics of Japanese corporatism and management: (1) welfare corporatism, [1] (2) insiderism or employee sovereignty [2] and (3) isomorphic tendencies (Olcott 2009). In addition to these, we can include (4) the 'technoid' tendencies (a tendency to attach too much importance to technology and artisan skills) of Japanese major enterprises.

With regard to the last point, generally speaking, Japanese firms tend to lay a disproportionate emphasis not on the social sciences (especially fields involving mainly qualitative research, such as anthropology) but on artisan skills like engineering. Japanese enterprises regard social scientists (anthropologists) as an uncontrollable 'offbeat' existence. In an interview with me, a researcher at a major public relations firm maintained that Japanese firms tend to underestimate the skills and experience of professional social scientists, when compared with hi-tech EuroAmerican enterprises such as Intel and Microsoft.

In connection with the second point, 'insiderism', there is little doubt that the lifetime employment or lifetime commitment has contributed to this unique attribute of Japanese large firms when compared with European or American enterprises. Japanese firms have never employed any anthropologists so far. A major IT firm, with which I had been communicating and consulting, has never employed any Ph.D. anthropologists or ethnographers, its major usage of so-called 'ethnography' for business purposes notwithstanding – business people or engineers perform these tasks instead. While the practice is not widespread in America, firms there in the USA employ relatively many social scientists, including anthropologists. Fitzgerald (2006) reports that Intel is one such example, having employed a hundred social scientists in the mid-2000s. This tendency relates to, I believe, the characteristics of Japanese management, such as the lack of fluidity of labour or, in other words, human capital accumulation. (Briefly, companies would rather hire obedient engineers for 38 years [3] than 'offbeat' Ph.D. anthropologists.)

'If ever there was a society that took isomorphism seriously, it must be Japan' (Olcott 2009: 32). With regard to the third point, the concept of isomorphism, which originally came from the (new) institutional theory (DiMaggio and Powell 1983), refers to the similarity of the processes or structure of one organisation to those of another, be it the result of imitation under similar constraints. It can be described in the oft-used word Yokonarabi. [4]

We cannot ignore ethnography anymore because the word 'ethnography' has become so popular in the Japanese business scene. (Interview to a researcher, firm B, 12 Feb 2010).

Firm B, one of the biggest advertising and public relations firms in Japan, made a business alliance with PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) for ethnographic marketing on digital consumer electronics products in 2011. Firm A, its nearest competitor, was among the first to introduce ethnography to the Japanese business scene – this may have affected B and its decision to begin ethnographic marketing. In Japan, companies have a tendency to fall into line with other Japanese companies (their competitors) and follow the same trends. Companies in a given industry cannot ignore this trend of using ethnography, since they will be left behind if they do. This tendency, in a sense, is related to the new trend of ethnography running rampant.

  • [1] Japanese organisational practices have been referred to as 'organisationally oriented', in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon enterprises' 'market-oriented' practices. Dore's term 'welfare corporatism' captures such practices (Dore 1973, 2000). The idea of the welfare corporatism is that firms exist to serve a broad stakeholders, but with the employees much more prominent role in the governance hierarchy than in the case of Western firms. '[T]here has been little doubt that employees come a clear first […] the stakeholder which is of overwhelming importance to a Japanese manager is the community of sha-in, the “member of the enterprise community”: the firm's regular employees who, like himself, join the firm, mostly at a very early age, in the expectation of making a career in it' (Dore 2000: 10).
  • [2] Itami (1994) develops the idea of 'employee sovereignty' and concludes that 'the firm belongs to the people who have committed themselves to it and worked in it for long periods' (Itami 1994: 75, Olcott 2009: 125). The Japanese system of corporate governance and the employment system which flows from it are based on the principle of internalism (insiderism).
  • [3] En-masse hiring of new graduates (Shinsotsu-Ikkatsu-Saiyō) – the custom whereby companies exclusively recruit fresh university graduates for employment – and age-limit retirements are employment practices unique to Japan. The average hiring age is around 22 years old, and the mandatory retirement age is normally 60 years old. Ideally, business people are employed by a firm – the same firm – for around 38 years.
  • [4] Yokonarabi refers to the actions, before making a decision, of stopping to look what other people in the same domain or institutional field are doing and then deciding to do pretty much the same thing. The legitimacy of an organisation's actions can be enhanced by putting it into the wider context of the institutional field rather than through demonstrable claims to logic or rationality.
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