Some things to Consider
These are a few points to bear in mind when doing business in Japan - particularly outside Tokyo. They are not complete, or comprehensive and they certainly don't apply to every company. They are offered in the spirit of "rules of thumb"... Some of them may surprise you.
- If you are used to walking into a bank, flashing your passport and getting cash on your credit card, you might be surprised to hear that you can't do that in Japan. The best way to access money in Japan is via your credit card through a Japanese post office cash machine. Before you come it might be worth upping your credit limit for overseas transactions, double-checking your P.I.N. and checking with your credit card issuer that it will be readable in Japan.
- Allow extra time, for pretty much everything. Things just take longer to set up and check when you don't know the system. Don't be afraid to spell things out - things that you may take for granted in your business culture may not be part of the business culture here.
- If you are dealing with a Japanese speaker of English, check they have lived outside Japan for a time. In our experience many Japanese English speakers get a little lost if you stray too far from that peculiar dialect known as "English Teacher English" and are often thrown by idiom or - particularly - an unfamiliar accent.
- "False understanding" is a serious issue when communicating in English in Japan. Both parties think they have agreed - and indeed they have - but to two quite different things. This can be difficult to spot - until it is too late - if you are not explicitly looking out for it.
- "False harmony" is another issue : - everyone is smiling so things must be ok... Or are they? Check the details - and then check them again, then see the next point about setting up a communication strategy for handling problems...
- US, Canadian and British business cultures tends to prize direct, clear, immediate communication of problems and clear lines of responsibility. Indeed, they are part of what many of us consider "professional behaviour". However, these features are not necessarily prized to the same extent in the business culture of - say - a small company in provincial Japan. You have to have a communication strategy to ensure that problems can be communicated to you - INDIRECTLY - but in a timely manner - so you can deal with them.
- You may find that the most frustrating thing about trying to do business in Japan is not the language barrier - real though that is - but the communication barrier. Bear this in mind when you are hiring an interpreter. An interpreter may be able to tell you what the other side said. But it takes a very good interpreter - who knows YOUR culture as well as their own, to tell you what they MEANT. When we do serious business we work in pairs - the interpreter interprets and a Japan savvy westerner with functional Japanese skills tells you what it means.
- You may be the world's largest builder of mousetraps and justly famed in every market in the western hemisphere, but if you do not have a successful Japanese subsidiary then do not assume that the Japanese side will even have heard of you. It is vital that when you first make contact with the Japanese side that they are given, politely and without arrogance, an appropriate impression of your stature. This is best done in Japanese by a Japanese.
- If you are dealing with an English speaker in a company, be aware that they MAY well be at the bottom of the company structure and quite unable to make decisions. They will always have to refer back to a top boss. If you can approach the company in Japanese, it is easier to talk directly to a decision maker.
- Middlemen - be cautious about "cutting out the middlemen". Japan is a country of "informal guarantors". The reason Company D is doing business with you may well be because Company C have informally "guarantored" you to Company D. Company C will do business with you because Company B have told THEM you are a decent chap. If you have a bad business exchange with Company D, Companies B and C will be left with egg on their faces. They may insist in staying involved to ensure this does not happen. To you, B and C are middlemen, but to Company D, their involvement is a pre-condition of the transaction taking place at all. Cut them out and Company D may just melt away...
- Changing things. Any agreement you have come to will have had to have been agreed by several senior people on the Japanese side. The person you are dealing with directly probably does not have the authority to make changes. Be aware that what may seem like a small change to you may cause mild panic... Make it clear in advance in which areas you may require flexibility.