Focus Groups in Japan

What is a Focus Group?

A focus group is a marketing research method defined by the Dictionary of Merriam-Webster as «a small group of people whose response to something (such as a new product or a politician's image) is studied to determine the response that can be expected from a larger population.» One focus group usually consists of 10 or fewer individuals (participants/respondents).


Those new to marketing research may wonder if a survey conducted with such a small group actually yields results significant enough to influence product development or marketing campaign strategies. However, an advantage of a focus group becomes apparent when we consider how marketing research is conducted. A marketing research is usually designed by first establishing the purpose of the research, and then the hypotheses to test. Since various risks may exist in conducting large-scale researches, it is common to first test the hypotheses by conducting a smaller-scale research, i.e., a focus group.


A focus group study is often conducted by interviewing participants or having them engage in free discussions on their impressions and thoughts on the products/subjects of the research. Participants are often also asked to try the actual products or their mockups (pre-launch version), and every step of how they use the products is examined and recorded by the moderator.



Advantages of a Focus Group

  1. Immediate Grasp of Customer Sentiment & Never-Thought-Before User Requirements

Since focus groups are usually conducted within very short time spans (ranging from a few hours to, at most, one day), it is a convenient method to obtain customer reactions and opinions as well as product requirements that product development teams may not have realized before, all within a relatively short timeframe.


  1. Fast Collection of Research Data

The fact that all participants of a focus group are gathered at one place and at the same time means that researchers can collect responses and opinions at once, which is considerably more time-saving compared to conducting individual surveys and aggregating their results.



Japan and Disadvantages of a Focus Group

While focus groups offer a number of benefits, appropriate sampling of participants is a prerequisite and needs a certain level of skill on the market research firm’s part. In addition, focus groups are not without fault, either.


Regardless of in what nation a focus group is conducted, its results may be prone to biases or even lack depth due to its participants’ unwillingness to express their honest opinions in front of others present in the same room, or if the moderator intentionally or inadvertently administers personal biases. Incidentally, in Japan, these issues become especially critical, and require marketers’ special attention due to a tendency in Japanese people to prefer consensus and accord with their surroundings, rather than individualism.


However, this by no means is an indication that focus groups are ineffective in Japan. On the contrary, once aware of these issues, companies, marketers and researchers can better design focus groups with Japanese participants, to yield the best results possible.


  1. Skewed Results in Group Interviews & Discussions

Focus group participants often do not know each other, and without any previous introduction they are gathered at a place on a specific date. Although Japan has seen a surge in diverse networking events and clubs in recent years, the concept of «networking» is still relatively new in Japan compared to other nations. When applied to focus groups, this characteristic may only strengthen the tendency in Japanese people to withdraw their opinions in front of unfamiliar faces, resulting in some participants not expressing their opinions fully, while others merely echoing the opinions of those with the loudest voice (literally) or the most talkative ones.


  1. Risk of Misinterpreting Participants’ Reactions

Visitors from outside Japan may have noticed that Japanese people often smile and even laugh while orally expressing anger, sadness and/or disappointment, i.e. emotions contrary to what smiles and laughs usually represent. Various interpretations of this very peculiar phenomenon exist, but common understanding is that Japanese people behave this way out of respect for their listeners. They instinctively fear that expressing negative emotions is contagious and may affect their listeners’ mood. They smile or laugh to mitigate the impact of the negative emotions they are orally expressing. In focus groups, if this behavior is observed, it is imperative that moderators ask follow-up questions to determine what respondents are truly feeling and thinking.



While a focus group definitely provides a valuable «window» into customers’ impressions, minds and preferences, it is advisable that those planning to use this method of marketing research in Japan learn disadvantages of a focus group and how they become especially emphasized in Japan. Once aware of these issues, companies, marketers, researchers and moderators are well-positioned to design and conduct focus groups in Japan in the most appropriate fashion for this country.