What is the most important element in business? Personal relationships, of course! After all, in any business transaction, the human interactions set the tone and stand out most vividly in memory.
In Japan, corporate relationships are often based on trust. That means that building trust is paramount to working with a traditional-style Japanese corporation. So how can you demonstrate trustworthiness?
While specifics differ from organization to organization, these general pointers can provide you with some direction.
1. Display your sincerity and earnestness at every turn.
In meetings, show you are paying attention by nodding or taking notes. You don’t necessarily have to look directly at your Japanese counterpart. In fact, looking directly for too long might make the speaker feel uncomfortable.
If you are out drinking or eating, watch your Japanese counterpart’s glass or plate to anticipate what they might want next, such as a drink refill. They will appreciate when you provide it before they have time to reach for it. When in conversation, pay close attention to the topic and make comments relevant to that topic. Don’t dominate the conversation with your own priorities.
2. Show up in person.
Generally speaking, you make a better impression when you are willing to travel to meet your client. There can be a great generational and demographic divide here. For example, in certain industries like the finance sector these practices are still important. On the other hand, in the multinational corporate or start-up environment, showing up in person is less important.
By the way, in Japan “on time” does not mean on the dot or 5-10 minutes later. As a rule, “on time” means about 5-10 minutes ahead of time.
3. Apologize immediately and express great concern as appropriate.
CEOs of Japanese companies are known for resigning as soon as a scandal happens. This demonstrates to the larger public that the company is taking the incident seriously. Similarly, if you make a mistake, your first reaction should be to apologize profusely and sincerely. In Japan if you don’t own up to your (or your colleague or subordinate’s) mistake, you will be seen as untrustworthy.
4. Warm up to the contract.
In Japan, contracts come at the end of business transactions to summarize specific terms and to make things official. In most cases, business partners hammer out the terms and conditions beforehand. So by the time you sit down with the contract between you and your potential Japanese partners, they will assume that you are going to come to some kind of agreement and the contract will be signed.
Don’t whip out a contract at the beginning. That will signal to your Japanese counterparts that you are looking for a transactional relationship, not a relationship where you build trust together.
5. In some regions, a good sense of humor is extremely important.
Tokyo is home to 12.3% of Japan’s businesses. When you include surrounding prefectures, we see over 32% of Japan’s businesses based in the greater Tokyo region, the powerhouse of Eastern Japan. So it is understandable that Eastern Japan is usually considered the standard bearer of “Japanese” corporate culture.
However, let’s not neglect Western Japan, which includes Osaka prefecture, the second largest economy with 7.5% of Japanese businesses. Combined with surrounding prefectures, that makes about 15% of Japanese corporations.*
In general, in Eastern Japan an earnest and sincere attitude is more important than humor for doing business. Earnestness and sincerity go a long way anywhere in Japan. But in Western Japan, particularly in Osaka, an attempt at humor might take you even further. If humor is your thing, it might be worth the effort to plan a couple of jokes to crack with your Western Japanese colleagues in an informal business setting. They might really appreciate that.
Today’s takeaway: You want to earn the trust of the other party. Once you establish that, the rest will go more smoothly.
*Sources: Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, “2014 Economic Census – Basic Research (Report),” Statistics Japan, November 30, 2015, http://www.stat.go.jp/data/e-census/2014/pdf/kaku_gaiyo.pdf and Statistics Bureau, “2016 Economic Census for Business Activity (Preliminary Report (Outline of the Census)),” Statistics Japan, May 31, 2017, http://www.stat.go.jp/english/data/e-census/2016/pdf/s_yoyakue.pdf
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