There is no special business etiquette in Japan other than what you have in the United States. Respect and honesty are the main characteristics you should have for your distributor. Don’t worry about the little things like whether or not you should wear a suit or smoke in the presence of elders (which is frowned upon in Korea).
The major differences between business behavior in Japan and the U.S. is morality and common sense. Take communication as an example: In Japan, it is a matter of common sense to communicate frequently. No delay, no stagnation. A Japanese businessperson who receives a faxed letter should always send back an answer within a few days such as: “I received your fax … ” or “The answer is … ” and so on. Even if the person is away on a business trip, they can usually be reached, because they leave a message saying how to get in contact with them. However, from our experience, Americans sometimes do not give answers or will wait a long time before replying.
Other areas of miscommunication often occur concerning contracts. Japanese distributors are frequently amazed when a U.S. supplier suddenly changes to another distributor, calling off contracts before their expiration, or not abiding by the conditions of commodity exchange.
Another example of a typical case of misunderstanding happens when U.S. suppliers come to Japan with incorrect market estimates. Generally U.S. estimates are too large, so they insist that the Japanese distributors buy too much. They should be more respectful of the Japanese distributors’ marketing analysis. Why do U.S. suppliers make estimates that are too large, and why do distributors reject them? The answer is: both want total control of the snowboarding market in Japan. But too much imported merchandise could destroy desirable-goods prices and value, or hurt their brand images. The long-term result is that the Japanese market will suffer from these practices.
Lately, some Japanese distributors, recognizing a general difference in size between the Japanese and American rider, welcome mutual cooperation to develop a better snowboard for the Japanese consumer. They hope that a good partnership with the Americans will develop to reach this goal.
In the end, the most important practices American business people can employ when dealing with the Japanese are honesty and respect. With these and increased communication, the ties between businesses in the two countries will be stronger than ever.
Midori Uchida and Tatsuro Higashi are on the editorial staff of the Japanese edition of TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine. This is the second in a series of articles for SNOWboarding Business.