Doing business in Japan information
by Venture Japan
The Japanese business phrases are at the bottom of this page but before skipping to them, spend a couple of minutes understanding why you do not need to become a walking dictionary of Japanese business phrase to succeed doing business in Japan.
First, language fluency and business ability are not necessarily (maybe rarely) related as many foreign companies doing business in Japan and which have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hiring and firing failed (but perfectly bilingual) Japanese executives can attest to.
Second, in sales and business, whether in Japan or elsewhere, language ability is secondary to attitude, motivation and commitment. In my personal case, my Japanese language ability, while more than adequate to get me through everyday life and business meetings, is far from perfect. Yet I have sold millions of dollars of software products in Japan and have consistently outperformed many perfectly bilingual people I know. For example, in my very first year in Japan I knew about 50 words of Japanese and did over $1m in software sales - if I can do it then believe me so can you!
Third, to learn to speak fluent Japanese takes at least 2 - 3 years (unless you are like a friend of mine who speaks 7 or 8 different languages fluently and learned Japanese in less than 6 months!). Fortunately you can hire a bilingual age 22 - 28 graduate Japanese secretary or marketing assistant for around $30,000 which is less than many US secretaries earn. If you make that hire through one of Japan's head hunters it will typically cost more because they tend to deal with older women who know that foreign company subsidiaries tend to pay a lot more than domestic Japanese companies do. Why? Probably because foreign companies make more use of recruitment search firms and of course a head hunter receives his/her 30% commission based on the recruited employee's salary.
A 22 - 28 year-old Japanese woman may not be the world's greatest businessperson but you are not hiring her to run your business - you are recruiting her to interpret your message and relay the response back to you. In fact in my experience, the problem with many older, supposedly more experienced, and much more expensive bilinguals is that they think they are businesspeople, start to heavily filter the content of customer responses and will even answer questions on your behalf and (because the conversation is in Japanese) without you being aware of it - that can be a lot of missed opportunities! If you have ever sat through a meeting where your bilingual employees are chattering to the customer and only occasionally referring to you for answers then you now know what is happening.
In the section on deciding whether to search for a Japanese executive or expatriate for your Japanese company President, I noted that many Japanese think that Carlos Ghosn, the Frenchman President of Nissan, is Japan's most successful executive at this time. I do not suppose (though I have not met him and may be wrong) that Monsieur Ghosn speaks fluent Japanese - when he makes one of his frequent appearances on Japanese TV business news he always uses a French-Japanese interpreter. Japanese speaker or not, Carlos Ghosn has turned Nissan's fortunes into solid gold and I am waiting to see how Nissan fares after his impending return to France.
Although you do not need to become a word-perfect Japanese speaker, many Japanese people really do appreciate foreigners who make the effort to learn at least a few Japanese words and business phrases. Very often it will be a wonderful ice-breaker and help build much stronger customer relations if you are able to make a polite greeting or two in Japanese. So, if you (like me) are not so fortunate with linguistics as my friend mentioned above, then: i) how far should you go in learning business Japanese, ii) what phrases are of most value, and, iii) when should you use those phrases? Here are a few:
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