There is no special business etiquette in Japan other than what you would have in the United States. Respect and honesty are the main characteristics that you should have for your distributor, but don’t worry about things like whether 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 business person who receives a faxed letter should always send back an answer such as: “I received your fax … ,” or “The answer is … ,” and so on. It is expected to happen the same day or at least within a few days, at their earliest convenience. 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 often will wait a long time before replying.
Other areas of miscommunication often occur concerning contracts. Japanese distributors are frequently amazed at a U.S. supplier’s sudden changing to other distributors, 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 wrong market estimates. Generally, their estimates are too large, so they insist on a larger amount of total goods. 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 merchandised imported will 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.
Lastly, it is the opinion of some Japanese distributors that they welcome a proposal of mutual cooperation in order to develop a better snowboard for the Japanese consumer based on the difference of size between the average American and Japanese rider. 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 should employ when dealing with Japanese are honesty and respect. With these and constant 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.