When a company engages in as many different businesses as Rakuten, there are bound to be a few interesting job titles floating around. But perhaps none are quite as intriguing as “Trend Hunter.”

That is the title held by Rakuten Ichiba’s Jun Shimizu. “I joined Rakuten in 2003,” he says. “I’ve been monitoring Rakuten data for about 15 years.”

Shimizu’s role at Rakuten is unique. Sifting through the mountains of data generated by Rakuten Ichiba, he is uniquely positioned to identify nascent trends before they’ve taken off. In the past, he has come up with a series of timely insights into contemporary Japanese culture, such as on the “designer emergency goods” boom of 2016, and 2017’s surge in ’90s nostalgia.

More than just numbers

So, exactly what kind of data does the Trend Hunter find most useful? Perhaps counter-intuitively, it isn’t sales numbers. “Sales numbers only represent the result. It isn’t the result that’s telling, it’s the process – it’s what users are actually searching for and talking about on social media that really reveal growing consumer needs,” Shimizu says, naming search data and also social media postings as his most useful sources.

For Rakuten Ichiba, the value of such information is clear: “If I find something that Rakuten Ichiba doesn’t sell, something new that is making the rounds on social media, we can take action,” he says.

He demonstrates his point with the iconic yellow dresses from recent hit musicals “La La Land” and “Beauty and the Beast,” both of which enjoyed wild popularity in Japan. Shimizu recognized the potential for the signature style to catch on in Japan. “I felt that yellow was a color that Japanese people could get on board with, so I worked with Rakuten Ichiba’s fashion merchants to make sure they were ready for the incoming wave of demand for yellow dresses.”

A cultural compass
In a company as varied as Rakuten, there are bound to be a few interesting job titles floating around. But perhaps none as exciting as Trend Hunter.

“Sales numbers only represent the result. It isn’t the result that’s telling, it’s the process – it’s what users are actually searching for and talking about on social media that really represent growing consumer needs,” says Rakuten Ichiba “Trend Hunter” Jun Shimizu

Shimizu’s 15 years of experience in the field has enabled him to develop extremely effective methods of prediction. One key point of his analysis lies in the existence of “regularities,” or patterns in changing markets. These patterns always emerge with the seasons, he says, and it’s just a matter of finding the “cultural elements” that drive the flavor of each particular cycle.

“It’s clear that these trends are strongly influenced by what is going on in society at the time,” he explains. One good indicator of trends, according to Shimizu, is Japanese osechi ryori (traditional New Year’s food). “Whatever is popular during a particular year often shows up in osechi. For example, after the new bullet train to Japan’s Hokuriku region opened, suddenly all these elements from Hokuriku popped up in osechi. During Olympic years, there is always Olympic-themed osechi, and whenever Pokemon is in fashion, along come all these Pokemon-related designs.”

An uncommon profession

So, those are the secrets of the Trend Hunter’s insights, but how about his costume? Shimizu smiles as he explains it’s a relic of his days lecturing at Rakuten University, a learning institution for Rakuten Ichiba merchants. “Everyone knew me by my outfit, and thanks to that, they took an interest in the trend analysis work I was doing,” he recalls. “A lot of my predictions hit the mark, and people began to trust me and come to me for insights.”

Shimizu knows how unique his role is. “You really need experience for this job. It’s not something you can replace with AI,” he laughs. As long as that remains the case, the Trend Hunter’s work is never done. He’s already hard at work identifying whatever it is that’s coming next.