Doing Business With Japan

by Jerie Powell (

Doing Business With Japan from a speech presented at Radford University

"Thank you very much for coming. I know you have better things to do. Please forgive me if my presentation doesn't meet your expectations but to the extent possible, I'll do my best."


Wait. Let me start all over again.

"I am delighted to have you here. I am eager to tell you how successful I've been with the Japanese. By the time I finish, you'll be so fired up that you'll be on the next plane to Japan. You'll sweep them with your Yankee spirit and come back with a pocketful of purchase orders!"

japan3.gif (19185 bytes)What a difference! My first greeting is self-effacing and apologetic while my second greeting is full of confidence and optimism. Well, you guessed it. I had a Japanese hat on for the first and an American hat for the second.

So the cultural divide is ever persistent, but the good news is that it's getting narrower and shallower. It will never disappear completely because most of us tend to stay within our cultural boundaries. With my Japanese hat on, I wasn't apologizing in the way you thought. I might have thought my presentation was a pretty good one. Why apologize? It's cultural conditioning. I am expected to apologize.

On the other hand, with my American hat on, I might not have been as self confident as I sounded. I probably had my fingers crossed about my presentation. Being an American, I was supposed to be positive, dynamic and assertive -- no matter what. It's what my American culture expects. So, an American "me" and a Japanese "me" have a different speaking style.

While there are rebels among us, most of us are more comfortable with our own heritage, history and culture. We are uncomfortable and feel threatened in the face of different cultural expectations. This sense of comfort has a powerful effect on relationships between the Americans and the Japanese. Especially in business. For the Japanese, business is about people and relationships, win-win relationships built on mutual trust. Of course, business involves selling and buying and making money. But for the Japanese, good business follows mutual trust, not vice versa. Friendship comes before money talk. And mutual trust usually results from comfort levels they achieve with each other. Politically incorrect or not, let's face it. It's more difficult to feel comfortable with people who don't look like us or talk like us.

I'm sure you've heard numerous instances of American and Japanese people having a hard time in understanding each other. They misunderstand, get frustrated, and blame each other for nothing or often for something silly. I have my share of true-life stories. I'll tell you one. It's a case of a problem created by the Japanese propensity to apologize for no reason and the American propensity to explain away mistakes without apologizing.

A friend of mine works for a thriving high tech company in Northern Virginia. A dynamic American woman heads up the company. They sell software programs involving operating systems for big companies doing worldwide banking and insurance work. More than half of their revenues comes from overseas. Their number one customer is Japan. Their business with Japan is a real "success" story but during earlier years, they weren't doing well. That's when they hired my friend.

He is a Chinese American, born in mainland China. He has lived in Japan for six years or so and worked for a couple of major Japanese multinationals. The problem he found at the Virginia company was about cultural communication. All the letters they received from their Japanese customer always started with apologies -- "We are sorry but...." "We are sorry to bother you but we're having problems with your software. We deeply appreciate your help. It could be our fault, etc. etc.," to make sure that the American side wouldn't feel bad. In this situation, the American customer would have said: "Your software is not working. We request that you fix it right away." This is a polite way of saying "Your software is no good. Come and fix it. Or else...." And probably, this is also what the Japanese customer had in mind. But no, Japanese are not supposed to talk like that. If they did, it's a disgrace! The Japanese people are like President Clinton. Making people feel good is their duty!

Now how did the Virginia supplier respond? When they received one of those "we are sorry but..." letter, they would respond telling them to do several things to fix the problem. To them, the letters were somewhat strange and even exasperating. "Get to the fact. Let's get down to business. Let's talk turkey." Fine with the Americans, but not with the Japanese. They took the Japanese customer's apologies literally. They thought their software was fine but the problem was something the Japanese customer was doing. They carefully explained what to do for the problem but gave no apologies. To the Japanese customer, this was yet another example of American arrogance and poor customer service. My friend has changed that. Now he uses "I'm sorry" all over the place. He goes to Japan frequently to keep his customer happy. Occasionally, he takes along his American colleagues. When they get back to the hotel, he gets teasing from his colleagues about the number of bows he made and the number of apologies he gave. They've never seen him do that back home!

My friend's story is more amusing than serious. But the consequence of misreading each other can be deadly in every relationship. In business, it could mean losing a million dollar sale. Business is so competitive nowadays. It's quite easy to find another supplier who is more in sync with Japanese ways.

So what to do? Bow and apologize? No. Unless you are comfortable doing that. If you force yourself to do something you are not comfortable with, and unless you have superb acting skills, you are likely to come across as a person who is not sincere and cannot be trusted. That's worse than making mistakes. There are many things the Japanese like about the Americans. They admire American openness so long as it doesn't become blunt and uncivil. They admire American optimism so long as it doesn't turn into arrogance or self-aggrandizement. If you don't want to be bothered with all those "how-to" books and seminars, just be sensitive, sensible, and warm. Be a sincere human being. These qualities are universal, and you'll be forgiven for your foreign sins!

But before you head for Japan, I want you to do two things. First, ask yourself if you really like the Japanese people. If you don't, don't go. If you insist on going, you'd better make sure that you have a one-of-the-kind product. Second, be sure to look at the world map. Not to see where Japan is but to compare the size of Japan to that of North America. The reason for this is, many peculiar behaviors you'll meet in Japan can be traced to their geography.

Now I want to turn to the larger picture. Earlier I talked about the cultural divide. But I also mentioned that it was getting blurred. More Japanese are becoming more Americanized. More Americans are becoming more Japanized. And the entire world is becoming more globalized. Globalization is no longer a theory. It's here. Businesses all over the world are driving it. They are operating in a global economy. In cyberspace, we are seeing one big global village. No national boundaries, just a horde of wired people cruising along the information highway.

Last year I attended a CyberJapan conference. It was at the Library of Congress. Several speakers represented academia, government and industry from the U.S. and Japan. It's just amazing what each side is doing with the Internet. Telemedicine, distance learning, electronic commerce are only a few examples. It was quite interesting to hear them discuss cultural differences. How will this affect the Internet? We have a revolutionary technology. When I e-mail to a friend at the Japanese Embassy, located only about 10 minutes from my apartment, my message first goes to their server in Japan before getting to his desktop in Washington. This whole process occurs at the speed of light. It's just amazing!

No doubt, the U.S. and Japan will compete in the arena of the 21st century but they will compete differently. The competition is not going to be about how many American cars have been sold or not sold in Japan, or how much tobacco Virginia farmers have sold or not sold in Japan. Or, how many Japanese supercomputers have been sold or not sold in the U.S. These statistics will be less important for tracking trade activities in the globalized world, especially in the developed countries like the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe. The reason is that the economies of these advanced countries are becoming knowledge-based. It's brain power they compete for, and cooperation will be essential because creating new technologies is expensive. It's technology exchange that counts. Not technology transfer. So they will compete and cooperate when necessary or at the same time. No longer are selling and manufacturing the only things they do in each other's country. They are now locating R&D operations in each other's country and other parts of the world, to keep close to the brain power.

In this type of knowledge-based economy, our top international traders are universities featuring great MBA and cutting edge technology programs. We have known for a long time that the most marketable product for Japan is American higher education. Before my son became a lawyer, he was majoring in a combined program of Computer Science and Business Administration at the U. Penn's Wharton School. Although he transferred out of the program to go to law school, I regularly get Wharton Alumni Magazine. When I read it, I know why globalization is taking hold. This school is globalizing the minds of young people from all over the world. These students are sharing new ideas and exploring new technologies. Just imagine the personal and business networks they are building. It's awesome. Future businesses will emerge from these person to person contacts.

Here are a few examples:

1. I'm sure you have heard of Megatrend author John Naisbitt. His company, Megatrends, Ltd. has 57 joint ventures in 42 countries. It has only 4 employees. It's small but it is a multinational company! He uses his personal connections extensively. Unlike Mr. Iacocca, he needs no government help.

2. Only a few days ago, I learned about a brand new company called SonicSound. It was started by a group of young entrepreneurs with a bunch of high tech gadgets in one room. They are creating new sounds of music for the Internet. Their target? Global audience!

3. Another case of a personal contact and networking leading to international business. One evening, the president of the Golden Gate University was at a reception. There he started a conversation with a Malaysian banker. Shortly after, he was invited to investigate setting up a professional MBA program in Kuala Lumpur. This president at the time had no particular interest in expanding overseas. To his credit, he followed up the lead and was able to establish a lucrative foreign revenue source for his school.

So this is my closing comment: Go to the local sushi bar. A person sitting next to you may turn out to be a Japanese banker like Unoki-san here or if not a banker, someone like Yano-san who can open up golden opportunities. Good luck!

Jerie Powell is marketing program manager for INTECS International, Inc., headquartered in Alexandria, VA. She first presented this speech at Radford University Business Assistance Center in August, 1997. She can be reached at tel: 703-916-8888 ext. 104, fax: 703-916-8908, or e-mail:
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