Business in Japan: 3 Huge Mistakes To Avoid

Avoid These 3 Huge Mistakes With Your Japanese Business Partner

Chances are good since you’re reading this you’re either importing Japanese products into the USA, or wanting to import a Japanese brand.  The Japanese are rightfully known for top quality products and extreme loyalty to their partners.  But the divide between our two cultures is like the Grand Canyon; you know it’s big, but until you’re actually there you have no idea how big it really is.

Here are three giant mistakes every American manager makes when doing business with the Japanese.  I’ve made all three so perhaps I can help you:

1. Don’t Rush Your Japanese Business Partner

We’re crazy about speed. We’re masters of rushing to work so we can rush through work and then rush home. We study time management, use speed dial and gulp fast food.  We’re impatient with 20 seconds on hold, pop a vein if a download takes longer than 10 seconds, and tell all of our managers to “just give me the bottom line.”  We’ve fallen in love with texting; talking to someone takes too much time. ” Just do it” and “Done” are two of our favorite expressions.

With your Japanese business partner, however, you must SLOW DOWN. He works in a consensus culture which relies on agreement among the group, either his superiors, his team members, even his employees.  A Japanese executive friend of mine once said, “On every decision I have a ladder to climb. I have to build consensus little by little in many meetings and each meeting I only climb up one rung.”

Pop Quiz: are you scanning this?  I know you skimmed over that quote.  So slow down and go back and re-read the quote above.  Even say it out loud.  I’m giving you a golden nugget here. For years I couldn’t understand this.  I knew about it intellectually, but still really hadn’t absorbed it. It’s so foreign to our American way of doing things.  But I became so frustrated with what I perceived as no action that I would question my Japanese partner’s real interest in the project.  And that’s a big insult.

So don’t expect fast action. Don’t push for deadlines. Instead ask your Japanese business partner, “What do you see as a possible timeline for this?”  Say, “What can I do to help you move this forward.” Be happy for little one-rung victories. Be encouraging. Say thanks often. Your wait will be well worth it in the long run.

2. Not Researching The “Saving Face” Concept

I know you think you understand this one. “I won’t do anything to embarrass them” you tell me. “I’ll be sensitive to their needs.”  If you were raised in the United States by non-Asian parents, you do notget it.  You won’t get it for a long time. My advice is to accept you don’t know squat about saving face and start studying up on it.  Here are three on-line places to start.

At the most basic level, your Japanese business partner must consider saving at least four faces in all interactions with you: his face, your face, his company’s face and your company’s face. And it’s painfully confusing to him that you don’t understand this.  So slow down and start studying it.

3. Not Discussing Your Long Term Plans

You do have a long term plan, right?  Make sure you can clearly communicate why you want what you want from your Japanese business partner.  Document what’s in it for both of your companies at the five and 10 year point. Be specific with revenue projections and market potentials. And if you are working on your Japanese partner simply because you need to juice this year’s numbers and he has something or can make something that would ring that bell, forget about it.

On any significant development, you will rarely, or perhaps never, get action so you can impact your numbers within twelve months or less.  Again, slow down, build your case and take a long term perspective.

If you’re currently frustrated with a Japanese partner, I feel your pain. I’ve popped a vein or two over what I perceived as painfully slow progress. On the other hand, I’m in Japan as I write this to celebrate the success of a 10 year plan for marketing our partner’s products in the USA.  It has been a slow build, but a great success. Good luck!

What tips can you share about doing business in Japan?  Leave a comment here.

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