Selling Japan: The 730-Day Wait


When I started my exporting company in the mid-eighties (now morphed into, it took me nearly two years to make my first sale in Japan (yes, I counted the days!). I started off with careful research to determine Japanese consumer needs. My associates at Mitsui’s Chicago branch were instrumental in helping me target my sales efforts. Working together, we learned about the growing consumer demand for fashionable Westernized food products that project an upscale image.

The demand for specialty foods remains steady throughout the year, in addition to the predictable surge during key holiday and gift-giving seasons. We also found that Japanese consumers are increasingly eager to sample new products that are clearly differentiated from existing market goods and that cater to a variety of tastes. They particularly like U.S. products such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s fast food, and Levi’s jeans because of the popular, with-it image those companies enjoy in the world market — and they are fascinated by prestige items that are hard for most people to obtain or afford. So we had excellent reason to believe that our products would do wonderfully in the Japanese marketplace. You, too, should keep these market factors in mind when you’re ready to offer your wares.

But it takes more than a promising product for an American to trade successfully in Japan. Most of us need to re-think everything we’ve learned about doing business. Before I set up my own business, I worked for a small manufacturing company with a committed export department. There I learned the basics of exporting, and had my first encounter with a Japanese businessman, Mr. Jiro Naito. I was very much impressed with his long-range perspective on business development. Jiro was gentle but relentless in his attention to detail, and sincerely dedicated to the cultivation of our business relationship (very similar to how I think women conduct business). Years later, we remained good friends until he passed away last year — and his lessons in global business culture are as vital as ever. From him I learned that Japan epitomizes the business style I have been emphasizing throughout my professional career.

Here in America, profits are the name of the game. All too often, our objective is to lure a customer and sell them anything we can as fast as we can. Our motto seems to be here today, gone tomorrow. The Japanese, by contrast, view their business partnerships as here today and here forever. Japan isn’t the place for overnight success — sales and profits will happen only much further down the road, perhaps even years later. When you set out to make business contacts in Japan, you must think of it as cultivating a garden: in time and after much care, good things will begin to grow.

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