Niek Hermus and I, are back from two months in Tokyo. Why we went there? Read it in our blog regarding the ‘Tech Business Camp Tokyo ’18’, an acceleration program, where our company InForIntelligence was selected for.
Now you deserve to get a personal report on our business experiences in Japan from our point of view, two typical Dutch straightforward guys.
We are always talking about ‘Culture Gaps’ and ‘Language Barriers’ when we think of far away countries as Japan. This is no cliche at all. A great movie about this phenomena is ‘Lost in translation’ (watch it!). In this blog, I will write down the experiences we had in Japan with respect to culture gaps.
After we heard that we were invited as one of the participants of the acceleration program in Tokyo, held by Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and ran by Accenture, we had just one month to prepare our stay in Japan. Therefore, I read multiple blogs/articles regarding these culture gaps, trying to prepare myself.
However and luckily, I knew Tokyo because I lived there for 6 months on exchange at Waseda University during my IBA studies.
However, it would have been great if I had found more blogs with tips to understand the Japanese (business) culture better. Therefore, I decided to create one myself with 6 tips which are highly important to follow if you are going to do business in Japan.
This post will probably help future Western startups trying to get hold on the Japanese market. Also this blogpost is interesting for Japanese businesses which are currently working or will work with Western companies to understand the other perspective.
— Tip #1 —
Buy a bike & know where to park it || For every object there is a special place in Japan
We rented an apartment in a nice centrally located neighbourhood, named Harajuku.
Of course, the first day, Dutchmen did what Dutchmen need to do, namely buying two (way to small) bikes, to feel more mobile.
It needs to be said that the public transport is more than perfect in Tokyo, you can go anywhere with public transport, however we preferred to use our bikes so we would not end up in of these situations:
Moreover, the trains stop at 00:30 so when ending up in a Karaoke bar, it is great to have a bike with you and go on trying to sing some more songs.
Everyday we biked to the office (around 40 minutes), going around Chiyoda park, the home of the Emperor of Japan. Our office was located in the business district and we parked our bikes near the entrance of our building.
And yes, first mistake was already made. After the first day of working, my bike was gone. We did not park the bikes in a designated area. I went to the bike-recovery place to pick up my bike again. They almost felt ashamed taking my bike away, even though I was the one who made the mistake.
Parking your bike is possible in small appropriate areas or in underground bicycle parkings, maybe this is a solution to the excess of bikes we have in the Netherlands.
— Tip #2 —
Your job does not begin after using the elevator, it begins when entering an elevator || Hierarchy and roles are important in Japanese culture
Our office was located on the 12th floor, so we used the elevator every day. It felt like if we made some mistakes and did not understand the ‘rules’ of using the elevator. Therefore, I checked Google and discovered a perfect explanation of the etiquette in a Japanese elevator.
Alastair Tse, expat living in Tokyo, created some rules for ‘Gaijins’ (foreigners) living in Japan. I can confirm it by my own experience these rules explain the situation perfectly.
Here are the rules:
- If you are the first to enter an empty elevator, you are the new elevator captain.
- As the elevator captain, stand close to the control panel and hold the door open button until everyone safely boards the vehicle.
- Once the last person boards, let go of the open button and press the close button immediately. Hold until door is closed. You must abort the procedure if anyone decides to sneak in.
- As the captain, you must now hold the door open for each floor the elevator stops. And use video game dexterity to immediately hold close when the last person exits.
- If this is your floor, you must be the last to abandon ship, hold door open until everyone exits. Then you may exit.
- The closest person to the control panel must now become the new elevator captain. The new captain must hold the open button until the previous captain exits.
However, when we tried to be the captain, which is a great position to be in when starting your day, people respectfully showed you that you were not (yet) suitable to become a captain, by moving in front of you and use the elevator buttons.
— Tip #3 —
Have a local person help you || The moment when you think you understand Japan, you do not
Joining the acceleration program we had several ‘business match meetings’; these are meetings with corporate partners of the program to see if you could help them with your business activities. During every meeting one person of Accenture accompanied us to help with the language- and sometimes culture barrier.
In my opinion, when doing business in Japan, this is highly needed. It felt like Japanese people do not want to show that they do not always fully understand English, therefore sometimes it felt as if I was presenting to Niek instead of to the 6 other people in the room. This led to awkward moments. Sometimes I was just looking at Niek his face and presenting to him. He was acting if this was his first time hearing about InForIntelligence and my presentation.
— Tip #4 —
Create Japanese business cards and understand the ritual || A business card is a personal extension of yourself, therefore the name on a business card is most of the time bigger than the logo of the company
Another interesting business: the business cards. We do not use business cards in the Netherlands since we believe it is a waste of paper. However, in Japan, a business card is really an extension of yourself.
If you receive a business card, look at the name, job position, everything. Spend around 5 seconds watching it and say some ‘oohh’s’ and ‘aahh’s’ while reading. A really great tip is to print your business card in Japanese, they really loved ours, we got an enormous amount of ‘aahh’s’.
When you give and receive a business card, bow politely and take or give the business cards with two hands. The letters need to be faced in the right direction. Repeat this with everyone you do not know yet.
It becomes a kind of ritual when there are many people attending one meeting. Most of the time we had a meeting with 5 people of the corporate partner, one person of Accenture and the two of us; this means that on average 30 business cards were exchanged every meeting.
During our first meeting we executed this whole ritual because we did some research before we went to Tokyo. We thought we aced it and were literally secretly giving each other thumbs up.
What started as an epic win turned out as a huge failure: step two of the ritual we did not know (and you do not read about this in other posts).
When all the business cards are exchanged, you need to put down the business cards in front of yourself, and put them in the same order as the people sitting in front of you.
The moment we saw the corporate people doing this, was the moment I found out I paid too much attention bowing politely instead of focussing on which person had which name.
I did not remember anyone so how could I solve this? I awkwardly positioned them randomly and at that moment Niek (and from now on my Business-Card Guardian) said to me (silently and secretly with a smile), in Dutch, the first letters of their first-names in order “Y – B – M – A – T”. Thanks to this I could place the business cards in the right order.
Everyone ordered the business cards perfectly and therefore a giant ‘U’; was formed with the 30 business cards which were exchanged. With some beautiful Japanese words and a polite bow, which felt like an intro for the meeting (and a first step in Japanese business), we started the meeting.
— Tip #5 —
Bow politely till the elevator doors close || It seems like elevators have an important role in Japan.
The meeting went well, the respect which is shown from both sides is beautiful to experience and really productive. Both parties are trying to find the spot where they could help each other and which lies in each others capabilities of doing.
When the meeting is over, more beautiful Japanese words are said and again a bow and by this the meeting is ended.
High chances you have a meeting on a high floor which you access by using an elevator. Therefore, on the way back you need to get an elevator once more. Again, a new ritual, more easy and straightforward though.
After a meeting the Japanese delegation brings you to the elevator, this is not so strange, the same happens in the Netherlands most of the time. However, a big difference is that they will wait with you till the elevator is at the right floor.
What happens next was unbelievable, the whole Japanese delegation bowed, we were in the elevator with the three of us (Niek, the Japanese person of Accenture and me) and a bunch of other people we did not know.
The woman from Accenture also bowed so it was our moment to shine and show them we understand the etiquettes. My business-partner, Niek, managed to be captain of the elevator (Tip #2) so he was almost enlightened already and felt like he was a ‘Japanese-business-etiquette-guru’. Accenture bent down, InForIntelligence bent down, Japanese corporate people bent down, 8 people in total. We were staying in our ‘bowing’ position and waiting for the doors to close, they started closing, Niek, as a real elevator-captain, wanted to make sure the doors were really closing (he is 2m tall so bending for him is even more interesting). He pushed on the button… WRONG BUTTON… the doors opened up again… this took an extra 10 seconds of bowing down and awkwardness.
At the ground floor, we stepped out of the elevator thinking about how we would never understand the Japanese (etiquette) perfectly. One thing is for sure, the Japanese have an enormous respect for people who try to learn (the process) and they totally understand if you will not understand the etiquette completely. We took our (too small) bikes, enjoyed the warm and dry winter day in Tokyo and headed to Shibuya to drink in a local Japanese pub (Izakaya) were we told these stories to Japanese ‘salary-men’, they loved it.
I hope you enjoyed this story as they did. If you want any advice on doing business in Japan, please tell me.