When it comes to world trade, it's no secret that Japan is a force to reckon with. From automobiles to televisions, from typewriters to real estate, the Japanese are major players, buying and selling tremendous amounts of goods and services.
For companies seeking to expand their horizons, learning to do business with the Japanese can provide unparalleled opportunities for rapid growth.
"Many small companies think that dealing with the Japanese is for the Fortune 500 only, but that's not true," says A. J. Christopher Wood, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Richmond, Va., which helps domestic companies build bridges to the Japanese.
"As long as you have a quality product or service that is fairly priced, you can develop business relationships with the Japanese regardless of your company's size," Mr. Wood said.
"One excellent strategy is to forge a joint venture with a Japanese business. For example, a U.S. manufacturer of innovative lighting fixtures might contract with a Japanese lighting manufacturer to produce its design in Japan and to share the proceeds according to a set formula. This can work very well for both parties."
Should you set your sights on dealing with the Japanese, you must realize from the start that this is different than doing business with domestic partners.
Those companies most successful in cultivating the Japanesconnection spend time learning what the Japanese expect of them and how to adjust their behavior accordingly.
With this in mind, consider the following do's and don'ts of dealing with the Japanese:
* Recognize that the Japanese prefer to structure deals on a win-win basis. This means they favor transactions that have apparent value for all the parties involved in them.
"In U.S. business negotiations, buyers and sellers often view each other as adversaries," Mr. Wood says. "The sellers want to get the highest price, and the buyers want to knock them down as far as possible. But the Japanese don't see it quite that way. Because they want to build long-term relationships, they prefer to structure deals where both sides are pleased.
"Although they will demand competitive prices, they want to know that the seller will earn enough to properly service his customer."
* Make an effort to use a few Japanese words and to display some knowledge of their culture. The Japanese take this as an indication of your respect for them.
* When invited to a Japanese office for the first time, present your host with a gift. This need not be lavish, but must be of high quality. Calculators and pens are good choices.
* Have your business card translated into Japanese. When presenting it to another person, use both hands and be sure the Japanese side is facing up. When you receive a card from a Japanese, study it carefully before putting it away.
Simply stuffing the card in your pocket the way we do in the United States is an insult to the Japanese, who view the exchange of business cards as a ceremony.
* When meeting with the Japanese, ease your way into business discussions. Unlike the American style of launching directly into the heart of the matter, it is customary among the Japanese to start off with polite small talk.
Subjects for conversation include knowledge of mutual friends, your impressions of Japan and your interest in sports. Sharing personal mementos such as pictures of your children can convey a sense of closeness.
* Dress conservatively and avoid perfume and cologne, which can be considered offensive in Japan.
* Although it is important to develop a rapport with the Japanese, never try to become "one of them." Because you will always be an outsider, attempts to force yourself on them will cause suspicion.
* Never slap your business associates on the back or put your hands on them in anyway. This sign of camaraderie and friendliness in the United States is frowned on in Japan.
Never say "no," when rejecting a proposal from your Japanese associates. Their desire to save face and to maintain surface harmony creates an aversion to the word "no." For this reason, decline an unacceptable offer by saying "It will be difficult to do this for the following reasons. . . ."
* In the course of business negotiations, never be impatient with long periods of silence. While Americans see this silence as a
sign of a stumbling block, the Japanese welcome the opportunity to fashion a response to your proposals. By learning to accept the silence, you may be giving the Japanese a chance to develop a face-saving strategy for accepting the terms you've presented as a prerequisite for making a deal.
The U.S. Commerce Department and local development agencies can help you make contact with Japanese businesses.