Monday, 12 March 2018

Realising 'Wa' in the East: A Sales Manager's findings

In this blog Martin Jack, Senior Sales Manager for IPR License and Course Tutor for our fantastic new course - Introduction to Sales Management in Scholarly Publishing: Selling to libraries, academics and institutions shares his pointers on doing business in Japan. 

Before I started doing business in Japan I read a number of books offering practical advice on how to be successful across the Japanese business table. “Bow from the back, not from the neck!” I repeated to myself mantra-like as I entered my first meeting and didn’t come to my senses until some-time afterward: a clumsy, graceless and inelegant 6”4 Scot is surely going to appear sillier the more he tries to imitate deep bows! My mistake was in thinking that I was going to win points for emulation…and to think, I had both watched and read James Clavell’s 1 million words+ Shogun! Oh well, Richard Chamberlain aside, at least I wasn’t in the position of Lord Macartney, whom 200 years prior was to head the first British diplomatic mission to China. “To kowtow or not to kowtow?”, in front of the ruling Qianlong Emperor of Beijing, was his predicament. And yet, his kowtow and my bow had no relevance whatsoever to the success of our meetings (one slightly more anticipated than the other perhaps). Then, as now, the essential requirement to successful international business is trust built on mutual cultural understanding – protocol is a secondary factor. As for imitation, Wilde’s judgement is final: ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness!’ And so, I’ve put together some pointers of my own for when you find yourself preparing for your first Japanese business meetings, which I hope are of some help.

Focus on the Relationship

Focus on the relationship entirely. You won’t succeed in your business in Japan if you can’t establish a relationship. Try to be friends first, develop a relationship, and earn and build some trust in each other. Start by taking a genuine interest in who you are meeting and remember their name, even if you have to write it down in front of them (they’ll invariably give you a business card at the beginning of the meeting with a transliteration of their name in English which you can refer to) and get them to help you intone the pronunciation if you struggle.

Setting the Pace

You won’t be the one to set the pace, no matter how much time you have for the meeting and no matter how many topics you’ve prepared to discuss. You have to defer to the pace at which your hosts are willing to proceed. Mirroring the pace of your hosts will show respect, save yourself from being seen to show impatience, and show that you are willing to spend as much time as necessary on any point raised. Those points may not appear to be important in the grander scheme of things but at the juncture when they are raised they should be treated with all the seriousness accorded by your interlocutor. Best to keep in mind what you aim to achieve in the meeting whilst preparing mentally for not achieving anything (see ‘Manage your Expectations’ below). The discussion over details of your agenda points can be picked up again afterwards over email or over the phone. 

Manage your Expectations

Don’t expect decisions to be made over the table and don’t put your counterparts on the spot, no matter how good your offer is. Many decisions are made in Japan on a consensual rather than individual basis, after much discussion, so that amongst other things, harmony (wa) is maintained. When a poor decision is made in Japanese business, the blame is generally shared amongst employees rather than it being attributed to any one person (which would result in a loss of face which the Japanese are careful to avoid). Try to avoid tipping the balance and spoiling the progress you’ve made by persistently chasing for a decision. Have patience (an invaluable Confucian trait!) or try to incentivise for a quicker decision. Remember, the Japanese are not necessarily working on the basis of your financial year.

Attention to Detail

A key feature of Japanese culture which has a direct bearing on the way you will do business is that of detail, detail, and more detail. Expect and prepare for detailed questions on your offering and proposal throughout and towards the end of your meeting. You will get the sense of the amount of detail the Japanese are used to absorbing by checking out any Japanese book on your favourite rock band. Not only will you get profiles of the band members and detailed album listings, you’ll get descriptions of their preferred guitars and each of the effects pedals they use. ‘Paisley!’, retorted an avid Japanese fan, ‘Paisley, not Glasgow!’, when I made claim to Gerry Rafferty as a fellow Glaswegian. Check your facts in advance!

Etiquette and Manner

It’s important to get an understanding of what is and what isn’t culturally acceptable amongst the Japanese so that you gain an insight into how they think and so you can conduct yourself in a manner that will be acceptable or even admired by them. Honne and tatemae are Japanese words roughly equivalent to the common concept of private and public face which is part of all cultures, however, in Japan this is something that is used in daily life and not in a negative sense – you could say that tatemae is a form of social lubricant. From a Western point of view, to conceal the truth is usually not taken well, however as it is so important to the Japanese to maintain harmony, most of the time true feelings and thoughts are not expressed directly in order not to hurt the feelings of others. Take that into consideration when you are approaching negotiation. There may not be much opportunity to negotiate prices, for example (certainly not as hard and fast and enjoyably as in mainland China), and so you might find it useful tailor your offerings so that they are as initially attractive to your counterpart as possible.

Profile photo of Martin Jack
Martin Jack
Martin is Senior Sales Manager for IPR License, the official rights and licensing solution of Frankfurt Book Fair. He has over eight years' experience in international sales in academic publishing with Taylor & Francis, having lived and worked in England, Singapore, China and Japan. 

For more info on our new course: Introduction to Sales Management in Scholarly Publishing: Selling to libraries, academics and institutions running on 28 March visit:

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