When sending a representative to Japan . . .

Let’s talk about conducting business in Japan.

A few years ago I met an American businessman on a plane on his way back to the US from his first visit to Japan. This was what he conveyed to me about his business trip:

Arriving jet-lagged and bone-weary, he was subjected to a round of meetings, often with 4 or more people on the Japanese side, speaking Japanese, which he does not understand a word of. The days are frequently 10-12 hours long, because he is expected to go out to dinner and drinks with his hosts as part of creating relationships in Japan.

He’s wined and dined on Japanese delicacies like raw fish, which often in his tired, confused state is the last thing he wants to eat. At meetings and dinners the Japanese side goes into lengthy discussions in their native language, boiled down to a one-sentence English “interpretation” for him, which may or may not be clear depending on the ability of the person the Japanese side provides (he hasn’t brought his own interpreter). He has a specific goal to meet on this trip, but spends a good portion of his time in Tokyo feeling disoriented. When asked if he felt the trip was a success, he’s just not sure. “It’s really hard to understand them, you know?”

The psychological implications of this are worth taking a close look at. Japanese see business negotiations as an important strategic maneuver. When a tired American businessperson shows up in Japan, is disoriented, outnumbered, can’t speak the language, and often depends solely upon the Japanese side to provide someone to interpret and explain what’s going on, a clear imbalance exists, and it is all to the advantage of the home team.

Tips to improve your success rate in Japan:

Always provide your own interpreter, or better yet, a bilingual consultant to level the playing field. Interpreters in general do not provide advice and cultural context. I have been in many meetings where one side made a comment, and then told their interpreter (frequently, me!) not to repeat it. The side who hires the interpreter has control of the communication. A bilingual person on your team can provide analysis and context later, and also let you know what the other side was saying among themselves. This is especially important since so much of communication is non-verbal. When you cannot read the body language and nuances of expression of the people you are negotiating with, you are losing valuable clues to their true motives.

I strongly suggest paying for your representative to fly business class. Economy class is a nightmare on a long trip (NY-Tokyo is 14 hours just flight time). Your representative should arrive as well-rested as possible to be ready to do business. It is not a luxury, you should see it as a necessity, or at the very least you should send the representative a day or two beforehand to rest up.

Plan to have negotiations take as long as they take, and be ready to walk away if no progress is being made. One thing that puts Americans in a poor negotiating position is sending a representative to Japan for a week under pressure to make a deal. The Japanese realize how impatient US companies are and use it to their advantage.

Business in Japan takes time, and Japanese have a much longer view of things in general than Americans do.

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