Having just returned from trip to Japan, I can tell you that doing business there can sometimes seem like nothing has budged in centuries. I've been working and lecturing in Japan for more than a decade-- and I always look forward to visiting and immersing myself in the culture. But most of the common business practices still seem stuck in time and firmly bound by custom and tradition. This isn't exactly a bad thing, although it's probably one of the reasons that Japan's economy hasn't kept pace with the world's other leading economies. But for some willing and well-prepared foreign businesses, this situation can present real opportunities.

I realize, of course, that the startup universe has thrived by shattering custom and tradition.  But that's here. As far as Japan goes, I'd say that, until you really learn the rules of the road, you'd do better to skip the sake and save your money.  If you really want to understand what the expression "slow as molasses" means, and also get a real appreciation for how business customs still vary radically from country to country, spend a little time exploring today's Japan.

The first thing that you need to understand is that, if you thought life in Key West was laid back, those Parrot Heads have nothing on the Japanese. Osaka may be the place where "don't worry, no hurry" was invented, because even the best businesses move at a glacial place and a sense of urgency is regarded as halfway between disrespectful and ungrateful. Everything takes more time than you can imagine.  Multiple introductory visits are mandatory; the first few meet-and-greets are typically more about food choices and family matters.  Nobody gets down to business on the first few dates. And don't forget the gift giving. In the gift department, it's the thought that counts most, as the saying goes, although the quality of the wrapping is probably second.  Finally, getting the timing right is also critical - not too soon or too late - just right on time.

The good news about the whole process, if there is any, is that after you pay your dues and build an authentic relationship, you're likely in it for life. That's why the Japanese take their time and -- as long as you're not an impatient American -- thinking about the lifetime value of each customer rather than going for quick hits and short turnaround times is really not a bad thing. Young entrepreneurs will learn an important lesson here about the need for patience and the criticality of investing in relationships.

The second thing that is radically different in Japan is that no one is willing to say "no." Every entrepreneur will tell you all day long that they much prefer a fast "no" to a long and painful series of "maybes," but that's what you get in Tokyo. And you have to be very careful: (i) not to confuse very good manners with any kind of agreement; (ii) not to talk yourself into believing that you heard what no one said; and (iii) not to accept commitments made in so many words, but not from the heart. When you've come a very long way and you're looking to get something done so you can go home, it's too easy to start kidding yourself. I always try to remember the drunk who once told me "that hooker really liked me" whenever I need a reality check. No amount of wishful thinking ever actually gets things done.

Japan is a peaceful and pristine world of unfailing politeness, an absolute avoidance of conflict and confrontation, and a place where almost everything is about procedures and process with only the most modest concern for progress. If you're in a hurry and have a plane to catch, you're in the wrong place.

This trip, however, I discovered that there's a bit of a generational crack in the "friendly" façade. What I learned (without naming any names) is that, outside of the room and out of the presence of their superiors, the junior people you are dealing with will kick back a bit over a burger and tell you quietly that, while they admire the directness and honesty of American businessmen, the fact is that being frank and out front is such a foreign behavior in Japan that they fear things may never change.  

The last obstacle to overcome is deeply cultural: a xenophobic pride in their own people and a staunch belief in their own internal ability to meet the nation's needs. Doing business today in Japan almost inevitably means partnering with a local firm and even then such deals depend on the foreign party having complex skills and capabilities not otherwise available in country. Increasingly, the general consensus in Japan is that there really are no skill sets so unique that they can't be provided by local companies--even if that isn't quite the case.

My impression is that this overall attitude is so firmly rooted in the culture and politics of Japan that you can't even blame individual actors or attribute evil motives to them. It's in the air and it's everywhere. Just look at the aggressive refusal to even consider easing the restrictions on immigration, even with the demographics of the shrinking population headed in the wrong direction and growing health issues around providing in-home care for millions of elders. Surveys consistently report that older citizens have a dramatic and overwhelming preference for their care to be delivered by robots rather than by immigrants. But no one would ever say anything like that directly to you.  

Bottom line: Japan is the most welcoming closed society around. You are more than welcome to come - just don't plan on staying too long.

 

 

 

Published on: Jul 19, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.