Secrets of Japanese business meetings

Secrets of Japanese business meetings

So far in this Japanese business culture section, we mentioned the role of service, the role of the Japanese company, and the role of the Japanese salaryman. Now we’ll consider how these facets of Japanese business culture interact at one of the first challenges for foreign company executives starting business in Japan, the Japanese business meeting.

In over two decades of international business, I don’t recall hearing a Western executive sounding nervous, and I certainly haven’t seen one in outright panic, when faced with traveling to the UK, the US, continental Europe, Australia, etc, for a business meeting. I have however, met many of executives, including some very seasoned executives, who were very nervous when faced with coming to Japan for the first time for business meetings. Maybe they had heard those myths of Japanese business, but for whatever reason, they felt compelled to understand and rehearse every aspect of meeting with Japanese businesspeople, even though they never did so for first-time meetings they attended elsewhere. So let’s look at business meetings between Japanese and foreign executives from both sides of the table.

The first secret of a successful Japanese business meeting is to arrive 10 minutes before the meeting time. Arriving 10 minutes early shows consideration for the people meeting with you, first because it means you will already be seated in the room when they enter, and second because it shows you value their time in not making them sit waiting for you to arrive. In many countries, businesspeople seem to accept being 20 minutes, 30 minutes, even one hour late for a meeting; in Japan that’s a serious mistake. Japan is a relatively small country with excellent infrastructure. Most major cities have subway lines, all have surface lines, all have excellent and relatively uncrowded roads with many buses and taxis, most have modern airports with many daily flights, Sapporo, Aomori, Morioka, Akita, Nagano, Sendai, Fukushima, Omiya, Tokyo, Yokohama, Shizuoka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Wakayama, Hiroshima, Hakata, Kumamoto and Kagoshima, are all on the high-speed shinkansen (bullet train) lines. Other than inclement weather in winter or the typhoon season (usually August until October), occasional earthquakes causing temporary system shutdowns, and the sad occurrence of railway suicides in Tokyo that sometimes cause hour-long delays, there is often no excuse for arriving late for a business meeting anywhere in Japan. If a Japanese salaryman thinks he might be late for a business meeting, he calls to tell his counterpart at least 45 minutes in advance. In 2004, before smartphones arrived, I wrote that one of the most important uses of the mobile phone in Japanese corporate selling was to give a customer 45 minutes’ advance notice of being late for a meeting; that has not changed.

If a foreign executive’s first business meeting in Japan is with a Japanese distributor or trading company used to dealing with foreign companies, or with the international division of one of Japan’s large multinational corporations, then the chances are that at least one of the Japanese on the other side of the table, speaks English, possibly very fluent English at the TOEIC 900 level or above. The employees of such companies deal daily with foreigners, so a foreign executive will soon feel very comfortable, maybe too comfortable, dealing with them. If that first business meeting is with a smaller domestic distributor, a smaller company, or an internal division of a major corporation (even of one of Japan’s multinational corporations), the entire meeting might be in Japanese with English restricted to “Good morning., “Good afternoon.”, “It’s nice to meet you.”, “My name is Tanaka.” etc. at the outset.

In the first of the above scenarios, a foreign company executive will soon forget he or she is in Japan; neither Japanese business culture nor Japanese business etiquette will seem an obstacle to success. Sometimes, foreign executives might move quickly to a profitable business relationship in such a situation, but more often they do not, even after months of traveling to and from Japan for meetings with the same group. The problem is usually that despite speaking English, the other side of the table is thinking in Japanese: being polite (remember this section is about Japanese business culture), they probably won’t want to seem rude by outright rejecting a proposal. Japanese salespeople realize when their proposal is falling on deaf ears, or the timing is wrong; they politely withdraw and save their corporate face for another day. Sadly, many foreign executives, especially in the euphoria of finding a prospective customer or business partner that speaks fluent English, do not realize the Japanese side is not interested. Months, and tens of thousands of dollars in wasted travel budget, later, the executives get frustrated and at last give up chasing an opportunity that never existed.

I have seen Japanese employees of distributors and prospective customers shower abundant praise on a foreign executive team, their company, and their products and services, and yet all the while have absolutely no intention of ever doing a deal. I have seen second meetings, third meetings, expensive dinner meetings (including one the Japanese side hosted, and which probably cost more than $2,000) but throughout, the Japanese side did not intend to do a deal: they were just being polite and waiting for the foreign executive to lose interest. After such meetings, I have seen foreign company executives convinced they were on the verge of multi-million dollar deals, deals which of course never emerged. The problem was the foreign company executives assumed that because the Japanese side was talking fluent English, the differences in business culture were irrelevant.

Many Japanese businesspeople are far more polite when speaking in English with foreign company executives, than when speaking in Japanese. When speaking in Japanese, they will often talk more directly, but even when speaking Japanese, they tend to avoid the word “No” because it’s too definite. Instead of “No”, a Japanese will say something which translates to English as “It’s a bit difficult.”. A Japanese salesperson knows the buyer means “No” and so should a good Japanese interpreter, but a foreign executive hearing those words in English, will consider there’s still a chance and keep returning for more.

The second secret of a successful Japanese business meeting, is to use an interpreter. With few exceptions, or unless a foreign company executive is fluent in oral Japanese, he or she must use an interpreter. In the second of the above first meeting scenarios, it’s obvious the foreign company executive needs an interpreter because without one, communication would be impossible. Moreover, a good interpreter, especially one who understands the foreign company’s business and aims, can help the foreign executive understand what the Japanese side really thinks of the proposal. In fact, the Japanese will often tell the interpreter things they would otherwise not divulge to the foreign executive. One of the finest foreign executives I have met in Japan, was the former President of a US household-name clothing company’s Japanese subsidiary, that he lead from around US$12million to US$600million annual sales in around 10 years. One of his best kept secrets, even from his staff, was that he is fluent in Japanese. He once told me that I made a serious business mistake by talking Japanese in meetings, which put the Japanese side on alert. His strategy in meetings was to play dumb, talk through his very talented executive assistant, and listen. He found, as I later have, that the Japanese side would treat his executive assistant (Japanese) as if she were on their side of the table. They would explain objections to her in detail, even to the point of “This is the problem, so if you could do this, then maybe we could do something.”. In fact, I now always attend meetings with one of Venture Japan’s bilingual staff, even though I usually speak Japanese, because they have developed the skill of encouraging the Japanese attendees to bond with them so strongly.

To further understand why a foreign company executive should always use an interpreter, let’s look at how a typical meeting with Japanese, regardless of whether there is a fluent English speaker on the other side of the table, flows:

  • The Japanese receptionist calls the foreign company executive’s contact person, then she, or the contact person, takes the executive to a meeting room.
  • Depending on the Japanese company’s size, up to six of the Japanese company’s employees, likely including a middle-manager to add credibility, enter the meeting room and politely exchange business cards with the foreign company executive.
  • After some brief small-talk, the Japanese team politely sits through the foreign company’s presentation, all the time taking copious notes.
  • After asking some questions, the Japanese team bow politely, thank the foreign executive, and except for the contact person, leave the room.
  • The foreign company executive is usually concerned that the Japanese side didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the presentation and is desperate for feedback.
  • The contact person assures the foreign executive that it’s just the way of Japanese business meetings, there is no need to worry, and of course the team looks forward to receiving the promised follow-up information.

How can any foreign company executive, especially one unused to business in Japan, know what to do next? The above flow can occur regardless of the Japanese team’s English ability; it happens because many Japanese businesspeople such as our salaryman Tanaka-san in the previous pages, do not want to take risks early in their career, or do not do not want to make a career-breaking mistake as did Yamaguchi-san, but also want to respect the visiting executive’s feelings. If the foreign executive had used an interpreter at the meeting, and had briefed the interpreter in advance, the meeting’s result could have been very different. A good interpreter would help the executive to engage the Japanese team, to understand their objections and needs, and to verify whether there is, or is not, a real opportunity for business. Allowing the Japanese side to talk in Japanese, and to see a Japanese on the foreign company’s side of the table, encourages interaction. They will often be more forthcoming because they are talking to the interpreter. If the Japanese team have a genuine interest in the foreign company’s proposal, the executive can move to the next step; if not, then the executive will saved a lot of time, energy, and cost, and can move on to more profitable prospects.

The third secret of a successful Japanese business meeting, is always use a written presentation translated into Japanese. A written presentation adds structure to a meeting and, properly translated, ensures the Japanese side understand the presentation’s purpose. Take several printed copies of the presentation to the meeting to handout to the Japanese side.

  • Many foreign company executives doing business in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, follow the ‘keep attention on the speaker’ doctrine using presentations with minimal slides each with minimal content. The logic is that if the information is not on the slide, the audience must stay focused on the speaker if they want to understand the content. Japanese business presentations follow the ‘don’t say anything that’s not on the slide’ doctrine using presentations with lots of slides each with as much information as will fit. When accompanying Japanese businesspeople to business meetings overseas, I almost always need to cut their presentation by 30, 40, sometimes 50 slides. When accompanying clients to business meetings in Japan, I almost always need to add more slides into the client’s presentation. From the Japanese side’s perspective, if a point is on a slide it’s important, if it’s not on a slide it’s probably not important.

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