How (not) to do business with the Japanese?
A good number of years ago, someone I knew asked me to help make contact with a Japanese publisher. This friend wanted to publish Hungarian translations of Japanese fiction. At the time I was working full time as a language teacher and happily agreed to help in my time off- for what I thought was a good cause. We decided that I’d help as a translator and liaison, handling correspondence with the Japanese.
My first assignment was to phone the publisher in question, using the number on its website and get the email address of whoever handled this type of work. I tried calling on a landline. The timing was my first major problem, since making a call during the Japanese working day meant calculating with Japan being 7 hours ahead of Hungary (in summer) or 8 hours ahead (in winter). One morning at 8 I got up the nerve to phone the company’s headquarters. After a couple of rings a very pleasant female voice picked up.
“Yes, this is XY Publishers’ central number. How can I help you? “
“Uhhhhh….My name is Anna Vonderviszt and I’m calling from Hungary. I’d like to speak to the person who handles your exports.”
“I see. You wouldn’t happen to know the person’s name? “
“No, sorry. I’m really interested in importing books and the copyright issues involved. “
“I see. Please hold for just a moment.“
– and with that she connected me to the lovely strains of Für Elise. I waited for what seemed like forever without being connected anywhere. Finally, after ten (!) minutes of music I gave up and hung up. I simply couldn’t understand what was going on, since the Japanese are generally so nice and ready to help…
A couple of days later I decided to try a new strategy. I took a closer look at the company’s website and discovered that Mr. Ikeda was the export manager. I picked up the phone again and this time asked for Mr. Ikeda. That worked. A minute or two later I had Mr. Ikeda on the line.
I explained that a Hungarian publisher wanted to translate several of their books and publish them on the Hungarian market. Mr. Ikeda only wanted to know if the Hungarian publisher would be at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Since I didn’t know, I asked for his email address and we agreed that I would soon give him a written answer to his question.
I called my friend immediately and asked if they would be at the fair. I immediately wrote down the response in Japanese and sent it to Mr. Ikeda by email. I spent days waiting for an answer, but sadly, nothing happened. That was eight years ago and I still haven’t gotten an answer.
Since then, as a business consultant, I have learned that business in Japan (and establishing contacts) runs very differently than in the west. In Japan the secret to a business deal is the presence of an appropriate go-between who can introduce you. (As a point of interest, you will not be allowed to go into a better night club unless someone they know introduces you!) If you don’t know someone who can introduce you to the business you want to contact then your chances of success in contacting a Japanese company on your own are practically zilch. (To be fair, I need to add that I have had some positive business experience after walking in off the street but I’ll tell about that in a different blog…) Why? The Japanese are determined to cut business risks as best they can. If someone they know introduces me to their business then that mutual acquaintance has to take responsibility for me being a reliable person. And without a mutual acquaintance, Japanese firms are unlikely to consider someone they do not know. One possible lesson here is that before contacting a Japanese firm directly for the first time, it might be worth finding a go-between who has a broad circle of contacts and is willing to take responsibility for us or to introduce us directly. Who would you turn to for help?
The photos are illustrations and come from the following websites: