Doing Business with the Japanese with a Pack of Ramen at Farnborough

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Doing Business with the Japanese with a Pack of Ramen at Farnborough

Posted on 14 July 2016 in Cultural Awareness, News -

I recently visited the Farnborough Air Show to meet a potential client (UK company) and took the opportunity to have a look around the show. Naturally, I honed in on a Japanese company exhibiting there and got talking to the representatives, who gave me the set piece in excellent English about their product. Once we had established I had lived in Japan, the conversation turned to the highlights of the different regions where we all lived and of course, as in any conversation with the Japanese, food. Soon, they had given me a pack of instant ramen they had stashed under the counter, some cute promotional biscuits and an invitation to go and eat with them when I next go over there. Anyone observing this from a Western business mentality would have thought I was blagging free food and an invite out to dinner (why not) but in fact I was doing business the Japanese way. Instinctively, I knew the right topics of conversations and how to start building up those relationships. Whether I get direct business from it or can build up my network, this will have been a good business transaction for us both. Interestingly, the British company they seem to want to do business with is one whose rep has a long experience of working with the Japanese, understands how to form those relationships and indeed met them for dinner when out there and has regularly visited their stand at Farnborough.

This is where the differences in business cultures cause misunderstandings and ultimately less than optimal outcomes-the Western business mentality gets inpatient with the long-term and sometimes vague nature of the relationship building that goes hand in hand with doing business with the Japanese and want to talk ‘results’ and ‘objectives’ straight away. They can’t see the value of Japanese presentations that seem to hone in on promoting local food and sake instead of actually giving out defined business strategies. The Japanese business mentality instinctively mistrusts potential business partners that aren’t aligned to their own values. All very solvable and actually quite enjoyable. Especially if you enjoy Japanese food..

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Re-building Trust in Japan UK Business After Brexit

Posted on 28 June 2016 in Cultural Awareness, News -
Japan UK

Cultural Differences

Disliking change more than most, the Japanese are reeling from a decision making process that differs culturally from their own. Characteristics of the British summed up by Der Spiegel as an “inner independence in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian defiant tendencies” stand in sharp contrast to the Japanese preference for hierarchy, conformism and putting your individual needs behind that of the group/company. Decision making in Japan is purposely consensual to get buy in from everyone so that unpredictable decisions are almost never made.

The traditional paternalistic role of a company In Japan where loyalty and trust work both ways (full time workers can rely on the company to look after them and the company can, to a certain extent, be allowed to tell them what to do) will explain why those Japanese companies who have invested heavily in areas such as the NE and who openly expressed their preference to stay in the EU, were hit hard by the high percentage of Brexit voters in these areas.

We now risk being seen as untrustworthy-not a good thing since trust is one of the basic cornerstones of doing business with Japan.

Building a Culture of Trust

However, the future of Japan UK business can be bright if we can re-build trust and mutual understanding. There is a very positive attitude towards doing business with Japan in the UK. I have been working with Tokio Marine HCC, who have been outstanding in their positive attitude towards working with the Japanese and building up this culture of trust. Many of the larger Japanese investors initially chose the UK because of access to the single European market (no-one knows if that will survive) but also because of many shared values and careful relationship building. Some of these companies have formed large Japanese communities in the UK creating a culture of trust through investment in training, local employment, educational and cultural links.

Business Opportunities

The vote for Brexit may have been a vote for many things but it should never become a vote against UK Japan business.

Although Brexit may have been a harsh lesson for the Japanese in the uncertainties of globalisation and shake their trust in the British market, I can’t see all their companies immediately jumping ship (their customary risk-averse nature may well prevent this especially when the future of the EU is so uncertain) nor them stopping doing business with British companies. Although it can take many years of relationship building to create successful business with Japan, long-termism is its reward. The CEO of Hitachi declared at Hitachi Rail’s opening ceremony in Newton Aycliffe that they were there to stay. Although Japan has been criticised for protecting less than lucrative (zombie) companies within their long-term networks, this non western business mentality may well be something we are thankful for in the short-term until that trust can be re-built and the future is more certain.

Japan is a long term investor in and trade partner with the UK and should remain one of our key business partners given their current globalisation imperative and a need for us to trade with other countries outside of the EU. The BoJ has been asked to free up cash for their companies in the UK-let’s hope our government can reciprocate by negotiating beneficial trade agreements and financial incentives.The vote for Brexit may have been a vote for many things but it should never become a vote against UK Japan business.

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The Japanese Relationship with Humanoid Robots

Posted on 25 April 2016 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight -
Hitachi Robot

When I go into British companies to talk about Japan, I often get asked, “Why do Japanese people love Robots so much?” Although the development of Artificial Intelligence is happening on a global scale with robotic manufacturing technology no longer dominated by Japanese companies, they have developed a close relationship with and acceptance of “humanoid” robots as seen by the recent examples serving in shopping centres, banks and hotels (although technically this one was a dinosaur). With a rapidly ageing and decreasing population (with no real signs of immigration filling the gaps) alongside limited child-care facilities, the use of humanoids is certainly attractive for Japan’s current social challenges. Last year, PM Abe opened Japan’s Official Robot Revolution Initiative Council and called on the nation’s corporate sector to “spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.” The humanoids that are being developed by Japanese companies such as Soft Bank (Pepper) & Hitachi (EMIEW3) can express themselves, have good mobility and seem to offer an alternative to the “human” experience.

Japanese Acceptance of Humanoids

The Japanese have never had much of a problem forming strong emotional bonds with substitutes for human connection. Look at their relationships with manga characters and let’s not forget they were the country who gave us virtual pets such as Tamagotchi. Many of these create intense emotional connections. The social media network LINE’s AI school girl character had men falling in love with her. I have often heard people quote the Shinto concept of ‘animism’ in Japan (meaning that all objects have spirits) to explain the emotional relationship between Japanese people and robots.

Cultural Factors Needing Consideration

A recent symposium* on the acceptance of humanoids comparing the UK and Japan showed that there is a significantly lower acceptance of humanoids in the UK and alarmism that they may take away jobs and render humans useless. Findings from the same symposium stated that: “In order to further social acceptance of the humanoid across cultures, designers of robots need to consider cultural factors in their potential users.”  Japan must culturally assimilate these humanoids outside of Japan to avoid an inward focus of their technology. They may be leading the way scientifically with face recognition yet facial expressions of Japanese people can be quite hard to read and even come across as indiscernible to more expressive cultures. The ritualistic set phrases used in different social interactions may foster a sense of intimacy for Japanese users, but may prove too distant and again “robotic” if used elsewhere.

However, to meet Japan’s current social challenges, humanoids may well be a solution-recent Nomura research indicates that almost half of the jobs in Japan could be managed by robots. However, I still remain unconvinced for their substitute as a child-care option..

*4th International Symposium on New Frontiers in Human-Robot Interaction-April 2015, Canterbury UK: Differences in Social Acceptance of Humanoid Robots between Japan and the UK.

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Brexit and Misunderstanding of Japanese Business Values

Posted on 18 February 2016 in Cultural Awareness, Japanese Corporate Culture, Market Insight, News, Uncategorized -

David Cameron recently urged non-British leaders of major companies in the UK to support his opposition to a Brexit by implying they would take their business elsewhere should the UK leave the EU. However, both Toyota subsequently said they would not reconsider their investment should that happen. This was reported in a recent article in the FT as a ‘blow’ to his campaign and incorrectly used as an implication of their support of a Brexit.
Apparently Mr Cameron wasn’t listening at the Hitachi Rail Opening Ceremony in Newton Aycliffe last year when Hitachi CEO Hiroaki Nakanishi announced that they were there to stay and both him and the Japanese Ambassador spoke of historical ties between Japan and UK concerning train manufacturing. (See my blog about this event) This sense of commitment is one particular aspect of doing business with the Japanese that comes from a corporate culture that values long-term relationships, obligations and loyalty over quick profits. Resulting disparities between these values and those of a globalising world have forced change in many areas for Japan, some of which were inevitable such as the shedding of less profitable products of companies and an openness to competition as opposed to supplier/brand loyalty. Such co-operative values are not particularly valued nor are they very effective in western societies where short-term profits and logic prevail. However, these values still remain very much part of Japanese business culture and generally mean that a contract with a Japanese firm, however painstakingly long and arduous it is to forge, is, by western terms, something you can rely upon unless you do something unforgivable.
I am also not suggesting that the Japanese businesses in the UK will stubbornly stay here regardless in the case of a Brexit if it means they will lose profitability or access to vital supply chains. They have shown in the past they will pull out when things go irreparably wrong. Let’s hope it does not come to that. However, it is naïve to expect Japanese bosses of major Japanese companies that have been in the UK for many years, have historical and emotional connections to them and have built communities around them or even more so one that has committed to basing their global HQ for train manufacturing here to publicly deny the values which underpinned that investment in the first place, even if it would further an aim that most Japanese businesses in the UK support- the UK staying in the EU. You only have to consider the Japanese values of honne (real feelings) versus tatamae (public feelings) and face-saving alongside the above mentioned sense of obligation & commitment to understand why this would not be a comfortable situation.
Japan is one of the major inward investors in the UK and has shown immense commitment to R &D, training and education, job creation and community involvement here. I often feel that this long-termism is not always recognised nor appreciated and in this case has been used for political posturing.

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New Year Reception at the Embassy of Japan in the UK

Posted on 8 January 2016 in Cultural Awareness, News -

I attended the New Year’s Reception at the Embassy of Japan in the UK to welcome in the Hinoe-Saru Year of the Monkey.  Whilst many British companies have been building up to Christmas since the beginning of December, the major holiday of the year for the Japanese is the New Year and this reception for the Japanese community in the UK is a chance to cement those all important relationships and exchange traditional New Year’s Greeting of ‘Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu’ as well as eat some traditional New Year’s food. As a mainly Japanese and male-dominated event, I was honoured to have been invited.

The New Year is also a time in Japan for contacts to send out New Year Greeting cards to thank people for their business in the previous year and ask for continued favour in the year ahead. All part of the complex web of obligations and rituals still evident in Japanese society. I did a twist on this tradition and changed the wording to tie in with Christmas cards.

For more information on building up successful relationships with the Japanese and transferring those into improved business outcomes, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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