Thursday, June 04, 2009

Japan Trip 2009: an interesting few days...

This was always going to be a combined business trip and vacation. But since we've been in Tokyo, it's actually been almost all business. It's been fun, but completely exhausting, and I honestly feel physically beaten up by now. (The last is actually not new; every time I visit Tokyo, I'm full of bumps, bruises and scrapes by the time we leave.)

The Japanese way of doing business is completely alien to me; interesting and logical in its own way, but I understand now why it sometimes takes so long for products to make their way from one country to another, and for deals to get made.

We've had several meetings this week that all involve nothing more than setting up wholesale accounts to buy and sell products. In the United States, this is a simple transaction in which documents are exchanged and, if everything's in order, a contract signed and an account opened. The whole thing can be done by email and fax in about ten minutes.

In Japan, business deals are made not based on legal documents but on trust. A simple faxed contract transaction in the United States is a sit-down meeting in Japan, usually with top executives at the company. These play out like job interviews and are no less stressful. There is a lot of gamesmanship, of feeling each other out, trying to ask the right questions and give the right answers without giving all your secrets away (or the secrets of any of the other companies you're talking to).

I think, in the end, that it probably comes down to what sort of feeling the guy on the other side gets about you.

I got the sense, sitting through all these meetings, that a long time ago somebody from Honda, or Sony, or Canon or whatever other Japanese company you could think of had exactly this same sort of meeting with somebody from the United States who was trying to convince them to sell their products in America.

We had a pretty good batting average on this trip but I won't say it was a perfect 1.000 (update: yes it was). I will say that the gamesmanship still continues, so I can't give away what our real success rate was. I'll also say that we got a better feeling ourselves about some companies than others, though no doubt things can and will change over time. The Japanese business mentality is interesting as far as what their concerns are and how they see their place in the world. I've known this for some time, probably ever since I talked to the people who run the Nakayama Doll Company in Kyoto, which has been in business with one main store for 500 years now. Who needs growth? Who needs expansion? Why rock the boat?

And after all, deals are closed without so much as a signature. It's a question of loyalty. Loyalty can block some deals from happening and help seal others. But you must pledge your loyalty to at least some degree, and it's expected that anything you say out loud will be honored. A signature is not necessary.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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