Historical Perspectives of Consumer Research in Japan

ABSTRACT - Consumer research in Japan has been initiated by the practitioners as the results of the strong managerial needs for competitive differentiation. It has also been initiated by the behavioral scientists outside marketing, who with empirical research skills and theoretical background of sociology. It would be necessary now for the marketing scholars to merge theories and research skills for their initiation in the field.


Mitsuo Wada and Michitaka Saito (1985) ,"Historical Perspectives of Consumer Research in Japan", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 105-107.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 105-107


Mitsuo Wada, Keio University

Michitaka Saito, Keio University


Consumer research in Japan has been initiated by the practitioners as the results of the strong managerial needs for competitive differentiation. It has also been initiated by the behavioral scientists outside marketing, who with empirical research skills and theoretical background of sociology. It would be necessary now for the marketing scholars to merge theories and research skills for their initiation in the field.


In viewing the historical development of the consumer research in Japan, both theoretical development of the consumer research in the U.S. and post war development of the Japanese consumer markets had played a great role. The former had influenced a great deal to the development of the Japanese marketing academy and the latter had shed light on the needs of consumer research in the practical field.

Until recently, consumer research trend in the academic side has been a strong orientation toward the theory development, rather than an empirical research orientation, just has been seen in the German economics. Besides, the theoretical consumer studies had not been developed well in the Japanese marketing academy, resulting a simple followups of the theoretical development in the U.S. consumer research. In contrast, a great number of Japanese consumer goods manufacturers, in accordance with the growth of economy, had imported and learned a variety of marketing research tools and tehniques through joint venture arrangements or product license arrangements. With this observation in mind, this paper identified the problems and future perspectives of consumer research in Japan through the analysis of the historical development of consumer research both in the marketing academy and in the practical fields of Japan.


The development of consumer research can be viewed as the result of the pursuit for the positive theory, which would lead to an appropriate strategic marketing decisionmaking. Needless to say, the focal point of marketing activities rests in the consumers themselves, the purpose of consumer research should be to conduct studies which would be able-to analyze the market and to effectively formulate a marketing mix. The purpose of consumer research as such had given a strong influence on the development of consumer research in both U.S. and Japan. Namely, the consumer research had developed toward the advancement of the positive theories for decisionmaking, in response to the practical needs of demand analysis, target market identification, analysis of new product diffusion process, market segmentation, lifestyle research for new product development and segmentation. However, the development of consumer research in the Japanese marketing academy had been somewhat apart from these needs or at least had not filled these needs.

The theoretical development of the consumer research in the U.S. can be classified into approximately five stages. The first stage of the development would be called the economic analysis of demand, which had been intensively done on the basis of economic theories. There had practically been no research for the managerial purposes before 1950. Through 1950s, consumer research had made a major shift from the studies based on the economic theories to the motivation research. The research orientation at this stage had geared toward theories of psychology, where theories and research techniques of experimental psychology, clinical psychology and psycho-analysis had be utilized a great deal in consumer research. However, the development of consumer behavior models and theories had been waited until 1960s. The purpose of those motivation researches had been to identify consumer motives in depth and to develop marketing tools for stimulating and cultivating consumer motives.

The interdisciplinary approach to marketing was suggested by Lazer and Kelly(1958) in the era toward 1960s and many of the behavioral scientists had entered the consumer research field, where behavioral science approach became predominant. This was also the era when a number of consumer behavior models such as Howard-Sheth model(1969), Engel, Kollat and Blackwell model(1963) were presented. These models had integrated the theories of psychology, sociology and social psychology to explain consumers buying process and choice behavior. At the same time, agricultural sociology, anthropology and communication theories had contributed to enhance the studies of new product diffusion process(Rogers 1962). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, cognitive psychology and attitude theories had been introduced to the consumer research field, which overpowered the psycho-analytic approach and S-R paradigm as Kassarjian called this trend recognition revolution(1982). Especially, the introduction of attitude theories to consumer behavior posed a great influence, resulting in the development and advancement of the expectancy-value models (Fishbein 1963, Rosenberg 1956 and others). Later, Lancaster (1966) developed a similar model on the basis of the utility theory of economics, which shared the conceptual framework of the multi-attribute context with the expectancy-value models. It had widen the area of consumer behavior theory through the development of normative economic theory in consumer research (Ikeo 1984).

The most recent stage of the development of consumer research was represented by the introduction of the information processing approach to consumer choice behavior. The consumer information processing approach has its origin in the studies of cognitive psychology and developed out of human information processing studies of Newell and Simon( 1972). Later, it had been refined to the consumer choice behavior models by Bettman(1979) and others. Both consumer information processing approach and Engel, Kollat and Blackwell model had finally been tied up with the concept of consumer involvement to explain consumer choice behavior under the low ego-involvement situation(1982).


Academic development of the consumer studies had not showed its significance until 1970s and 1980s in Japan. 1950s and 1960s were the era when marketing concepts and techniques were introduced to the practical field and the motivation research had sat in the center of the marketing research activities in Japan. At the same time, marketing academicians had played a major role of introducing the consumer choice behavior models such as Howard-Sheth model, Engel, Kollat and Blackwell model, and Nicosia model. Throughout the years of 1950s and 1960s, a majority of the academic articles and publications were filled with introductions, explanations and criticisms of the consumer behavior studies and theories developed in the U. S.. There had practically been no attempt made to empirically test them or revise them into fitting the Japanese consumer environment.

Japanese marketing scholars had started to make their efforts to improve the existing consumer behavior models, develop new models and test them empirically in 1970s and 1980s. These were the times when the Japanese marketing scholars had shifted their academic orientation from the theory building within the framework of economics to the middle-range theories and expanded their approach to the behavioral sciences. Multi-attribute attitude models, consumer satisfaction models, diffusion models and brand loyalty models are the many of the few models, which were improved, expanded and empirically tested. At the same time, the behavioral scientists such as social psychologists and sociologists came into scene to develop new consumer behavior theories and test them with their behavioral science research background. The contributions of these behavioral scientists to the field are twofold. First, the behavioral scientists with their own research skills have initiated the empirical consumer research and diffused these skills among the marketing scholars. Second, the conceptual models of lifestyle was developed by the joint efforts of marketing scholars and sociologists. The marketing scholars introduced the past conceptual development of lifestyle studies in the U.S. and explained their necessity and usefulness to the field. On the other hand, sociologists introduced the schema of Persons and Smelser (1956), which was based on the structural and functional analysis of society. Furthermore, they developed the comprehensive model called "Life-System Model" (Matsubara et al., 1971).

Resulting lifestyle studies developed in Japan facilitated a wider perspective as compared to the ones developed in the U.S.. These models view the consumers as life-planners and cover the total aspects of their life including values, life structure, life space and life behaviors of today, the past and tomorrow. The conceptual framework of lifestyles developed in Japan has further extended to the studies of the "Quality of Life", which was originally developed by the efforts of Japanese marketing scholars(Murata et al.,1973, 1976). More recently, the empirical tests of information processing model by protocol method, the study information processing model of consumer choice combined with low-involvement theory, conjoint analysis of product concepts, etc. have been conducted intensively. Although the basic frameworks were originally developed in the United States, they have been done almost simultaneously among the Japanese marketing scholars.

In summary, the development of consumer research in the Japanese academy can be characterized as follows.

(1) As the tradition and background of the most marketing scholars at the early stage of development, the academic climate had not allowed marketing scholars to develop and empirically test so-called middle-range theories and models. There had no tradition of behavioral scientists involved in marketing, and the background of most marketing scholar was in economics. The above climate led the marketing scholars at the early stage to limit the activities to either introduce, interpret, compare or criticize conceptual grand theories of consumer behavior.

(2) Marketing scholars with their academic background mainly in economics had facilitated no skills and knowledge of behavioral science research. Therefore, the empirical testing of consumer behavior theories had been originally initiated by the behavioral scientists and later followed by younger marketing scholars who have some trainings in behavioral research skills. During 1970s, original study of "Quality of Life" and lifestyle had done and other theories and models had revised or improved to be applied to Japanese consumer research.


The practical development of consumer research in Japan can be divided into two parts in the postwar era. It is deeply related to the postwar rapid development of consumer markets in Japan. The first part of the development is the learning of research skills and techniques as a part of imported marketing know-how package, in the era of high growth market. The second part of the development can be called the era of intensive lifestyle research in response to the market needs for competitive differentiation. Since the energy crisis in 1973, consumer market in Japan has strikingly changed. Mass market was divided into a wide variety of small market and the needs of consumer became varied. To adapt to such changing market, analyze the~ opportunity, segment the market and build an effective and efficient marketing mix, lifestyle study was given attention.

During the period of rapid economic growth until early 1970s, main focus of Japanese marketers was to introduce new products in the domestic market in order to expand market demand. For doing it successfully, it is required to exactly understand, cultivate and forecast the needs of market. Therefore, the request for the development of market research was raised. Marketing scholars were interested in explaining the process or mechanism of how or why consumer makes buying decision. On the contrary, marketers in the practical side were interested in recognizing the existing and potential needs of market to develop new products and build successful marketing strategy.

It was the era for the Japanese consumer goods manufacturers to learn modern marketing know-hows and techniques from the U.S. manufacturers. As the results, major Japanese consumer goods manufacturers had conducted a good number of consumer research just for the purpose of searching and forecasting the market needs in preparation for the new product introduction.

When the markets mostly matured and oligopolized as the result of rapid growth and homogeneous competition, Japanese manufacturers have tried to find the way to differentiate their products and strategies from the competitors. And one of the answers to this problem was the lifestyle segmentation. Lifestyle segmentation became predominant in Japan at this stage, partly because the existence of difficulties in differentiate product function itself among the oligopolistic competitors with rather homogeneous strategies, and partly because Japanese consumers are demographically homogeneous.

The needs of the Japanese manufacturer for competitive differentiation further extended to the differentiation by corporate image. Corporate image studies were then intensively conducted and originally developed to review and identify corporate identity as the tool to strategically differentiate the company as a whole.

In summary, practical development of consumer research in Japan had started from simple learning of market research techniques as a part of the adoption of the modern marketing know-how to the development of lifestyle segmentation studies and corporate image research for the purpose of competitive differentiation. Recent trend of practical consumer research added to apply conjoint analysis to search new product development opportunities in the era of market maturity.


Review of the historical development of consumer research in Japan clearly indicated that the consumer research was intensively conducted in the practical field as the results of the management needs to learn modern marketing techniques, to develop consumer markets and to establish competitive differentiation. On the other hand, it was developed rather slowly and neglectfully in the academic side. Consumer research was not initiated originally by the marketing scholars, but by behavioral scientists outside of marketing. In the early stage of development, marketing scholars had too much concerned with theories and conceptual development and lacked empirical orientation. it was until recently that marketing scholars have involved in developing middle-range theories and test them empirically. It would be desirable and possible that the academicians and practitioners would-make joint efforts to improve the quality of both academic and practical consumer research. for the academicians now facilitated with conceptual and technical skills in behavioral science, can improve their practical implication of their research and easily access to the empirical research setting by these efforts. For the practitioners whose research had been sometimes too much managerially oriented and technically oriented, may improve research quality conceptually. Through a long process of learning and neglect in the postwar period in Japan, both practically and theoretically beneficial consumer research would come in process.


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Mitsuo Wada, Keio University
Michitaka Saito, Keio University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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