Lessons learnt by Swiss business people – Hidden gaps in business with Japan (7)

Do you know an invisible trap in doing business with Japan?

In appearance, Japan is not different from Europe; modern buildings, fancy cars and people dressed like Europeans. In reality at work, however, the country is very different.

What have Swiss business people learnt from their experience with Japan? Europe-Japan Dynamics interviewed fourteen (14) Swiss business people who had the first-hand business experience with the country.

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Tokyo Station (The south entrance)
Tokyo Station (The south entrance)

Overall, all the people interviewed like the Japanese as business partners and in a personal relationship. All think the Japanese reliable, polite, engaged and respectful to others. Many experts appreciated a long-term approach taken by the Japanese as this attitude creates better values in business.

That said, all the experts said that communication and a long time needed in decision-making had been considerably large challenges. Challenges in communication go beyond language issues. Even though both Swiss and Japanese speak good English, Swiss business people were puzzled by the Japanese reaction, as typically expressed by one manager, “I was often not sure if my Japanese business partners understood me.” It often takes a few years for Swiss people to understand how to interpret the Japanese “Yes” in the Japanese business cultural context.

"Ringi sho" - An important process in Japanese decision-making
“Ringi sho” – An important process in Japanese decision-making

A Japanese way of decision-making is another big challenge. The Japanese spend a long time in Swiss standard to reach a conclusion, and it is difficult for the Swiss to find who the decision-maker is.

Swiss business people see a good point in the Japanese decision-making, though. “The strength of Japan is that once agreed, the decision is firm and all the people work exactly as decided”, one interviewee said.

Despite these challenges, many Swiss companies are running successful business with Japan. They have learned through experience many clues for success. For example, it is important to ensure mutual understanding by asking questions step by step, and follow up on important matters. Soft and informal communication is “Must”. Some went out for a drink after work to discuss business matters with his Japanese clients. Or, some other played golf with Japanese business partners in weekends. Yet other visited museums or travelled outside Tokyo in weekends to better understand the country.

The study found that the common success factors are; to respect and accept different values, as one interviewee said, “Japan has its own way of doing things”, to be extremely patient, and to build the mutual trust before pushing business. The interviewees emphasised large advantages of doing business in the Japanese language, or at least, to work with a Japanese person who knows business. The centre of the matter is business culture, more than a language. Understanding the culture and value-set embedded in business is critical, even though it is not as visible as other concrete business matters as finance, products, R&D, or sales & marketing.

Last but not the least, human resource factors are far from negligible. Having a cultural competence is essential to do business with Japan. Underestimating the importance of cultural management in business may cost much.

About the study — From April to July 2014, Europe-Japan Dynamics interviewed fourteen (14) Swiss business people who had first hand experience with Japan. Their industries varied, including legal, financial and human resource services, pharmaceutical, academic and luxury goods sectors. The author is very thankful to the 14 people who were willing to spare time and thoughts for the study.

For a free copy of the synthesis or consultation on your business issues with Japan, please call or write to —

Yoshiko KURISAKI (Ms), Director, Europe-Japan Dynamics

Tel. +41 (0) 76 411 6076, E-mail yoshiko.kurisaki@gmail.com

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Author: Yoshiko KURISAKI (栗崎由子)

I am Yoshiko Kurisaki, Japanese, executive consultant specializing in cross-cultural management between Europe and Japan. Being based in Geneva, I travel between Europe and Japan. Culture may be a stop factor in business. That said, if you go beyond that, culture is a vaIuable source of inspirations and innovation. I help European businesses to turn cultural barriers to innovation.   栗崎由子(くりさき よしこ)、ダイバーシティ マネジメント コンサルタント。二十余年間欧州の国際ビジネスのまっただ中で仕事をしてきました。その経験を生かし、日欧企業むけにビジネスにひそむ異文化間コミュニケーションギャップを解消し、国籍、文化、性別など人々の違いを資源に変えることのできるマインドセットを育てるための研修やコンサルティングを行なっています。文化の違いは”面倒なこと”ではなく新しい価値を生み出す源泉です。日本人の良さを国際ビジネスに生かしながら、違いを資源に変えて価値を創造しましょう。ジュネーブ在住で、日本とスイスを往復しています。

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