Finding business partners and building relationships in Japan
Investing in relationships is very important to succeeding in Japan. The strength of business relationships can determine many aspects of commercial life, including access to credit, procurement and contracting. Investing in business relationships involves face-to-face time with a person of similar age and status, with a strong emphasis on loyalty and trustworthiness. Having contacts in Japan with whom you have good working relationships may also help you access critical market information and learn about new opportunities.
Australian businesses should also consider the impact of age, gender, educational and marital status on the formation of personal and commercial relationships in Japan.
General knowledge of Japan
A basic general knowledge of Japan can assist your relationship building by creating an immediate connection with a new contact. Demonstrating what you know about the country’s geography and history will please your hosts and just might make them more open in communications than they would otherwise be. Doing some travel around Japan may serve you well in this respect.
An introduction from an intermediary who is known and trusted by your Japanese counterpart will go a long way towards establishing a positive business relationship. The higher the standing of the intermediary, the more successful you are likely to be at making contact with the right people. While cold calling can work in Japan, it may take a considerable amount of time and require high-level Japanese language skills.
Business relationships in Japan are more trust oriented and personal than Australians might be used to. Building a relationship will take time and face- to-face interactions, visits to Japan, and a fair amount of socialising. It is best to allow a night in Japan for each meeting planned.
The Japanese place a premium on trust and honesty. They appreciate honest communication and admissions and apologies if you are unable to meet a request. A conscious effort is required to nurture relationships and build trust. Even after business ties have been established, you should still send the most senior executive possible to Japan in order to avoid insult and to maintain positive relationships.
Consistency in relationships is a key factor in success. Documenting agreements fully and concisely to reflect the needs and expectations of both parties will help to avoid problems later. Keep Japanese partners informed of key personnel changes. There also needs to be an overlap when these changes occur, so there is continuity and consistency.
Socialise with Japanese
Japanese can be formal and reserved in social interactions, especially in the office. Socialising after hours over dinner and drinks is a great way to develop a relationship and make communication more open. Business is unlikely to be discussed at dinner, as it is about establishing a personal relationship and giving your Japanese counterpart the opportunity to learn more about your ‘true character’.
The one who made the invitation is the host and pays. Guests are expected to offer to pay only once which will be politely declined by the host. Splitting bills is rare in Japan. The best way to show your appreciation is to invite the host to dinner or give them a gift next time you see them.
Socialising is not restricted to dinner and drinks. You are quite likely to end up at a karaoke venue and, as a foreign guest, you will be expected to sing – regardless of how poor you feel your singing voice is. If you are invited to play golf, this is a positive sign that your potential Japanese business partner is interested in getting to know you better.
While it is important to enjoy yourself during these social activities, remember that the Japanese you are with will be judging your character and how you behave. Be yourself but it is best to keep this in mind.
Season greetings cards
Sending a New Year’s greeting card, known as a nengajou, is a good way to build and maintain relationships with Japanese business partners.
Gift giving is part of Japanese business culture and is highly ritualised. Gifts should be given and received with both hands and should not be opened in the presence of the giver. If you receive a gift, you should reciprocate with a gift of a similar value. While there are many rules for gift giving in Japan and many depend on context, in a business setting it is best to give gifts in odd-numbered sets (except for nine, which is considered unlucky). If you are giving a gift in a group setting, make sure you have enough for everyone present. Gifts should reflect the status of the receiver, so you should have different gifts for different members of your Japanese counterpart’s organisation.
Want to learn more? Explore our other Indonesia information categories or download the Japan Country Starter Pack.