Can Anyone Succeed?

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2004

IF you ask foreigners what it takes to launch a successful business in Japan, they will offer answers that in many ways reflect their cultural origins. Americans typically say you must enjoy what you do, and enjoy working with people. A Chinese who works at a massage parlor says you must work hard like a Japanese, speak Japanese like a Japanese -- and not shop like a Japanese.

by Mayumi Watanabe

it is a combination of judgment, inspirations and experiences. An Indian restaurant manager from Bangladesh says you must think until your brain spills out of your head in order to bargain hard.

But they all believe that success in business is reserved for very special people.

Bhudan Adhikari, a 26-year old Nepalese who runs a Nepalese-Indian dining bar in Iidabashi, Tokyo, says he just wanted to start a business after finishing his short career as a television movie actor. "The entertainment world is where you really need to be gifted and lucky," he says.

Kennichi Hirose, the president of an IR consulting firm, Nippon Digital Communications, has seen foreign entrepreneurs come and go and takes Adhikari's view. He is also convinced that being gifted does not necessarily make a good businessman in Japan. In a foreign country, businessmen must act locally. This seems obvious, but many talented individuals soon realize its true meaning: They must stop being what and who they are.

They may think they know how to do business, but, says Hirose: "Whether the Japanese ways are up to the global standard or not, if Japan requires you to have papers, you must have papers. If Japan requires you to have useless meetings, you must have useless meetings." Period.

Bright minds are the least helpful.............................

"Acting locally" is not so easy for non-Japanese. Even the Japanese are not the best experts on Japan. How do you act locally? If you are not born Japanese, how long must you live in Japan to attain the right level of adaptation?

Entrepreneurial minds create solutions when faced with such issues. They love to be challenged. A typical solution is to work with an open-minded Japanese who can act globally and locally with a company's customers.

In other words: You need a local partner.

Entrepreneurs are also people with strong interpersonal skills. Like magic, they find ways to meet a Japanese with superior English skills and fabulous business contacts. However, if the role of the valuable local partner is that of a shock absorber to protect them from the 'real Japan,' a high price will be paid later.

Avoiding the real Japan translates into an attempt to blame the Japanese for any and all negative consequences.

"The Japanese may be scared of speaking English, but they are not totally English illiterate," says a 39-year old secretary of a European entrepreneur who recently left her job. "With pens and dictionaries and some patience, you can get your messages across. The problem lies beyond language. Foreign bosses may not always have the right expectations for their business because they are new in Japan. Rather than making the effort to understand why things have not turned out the way they were designed in their strategy, they blame their Japanese staff -- who may not be as bright in the same way as the Western gaijins."

Indeed, so-called 'bright minds' are easily blinded by business school concepts. For example, the gaijins at one company aiming to provide the Japanese staff with professional English and international business attitudes also invented their own original business tactics. To the Japanese, they were hilarious.

The Japanese business code says never speak rudely on the phone, even during annoying sales calls. "The gaijins [in the company] told me I was wasting my time speaking discreetly to people who are not customers," adds the secretary. Of course, she did not explain herself to her bosses, who were concerned about being rude. The typical foreign response to such behavior is: "Why doesn't she ever say anything?"

In Japan, people stay in their offices until late, but sales calls are made during business hours. "I was coerced into making sales calls at seven and eight in the evenings," says the secretary. "I was so embarrassed to speak my name." She finally refused to make late evening calls, but "my boss said that Japanese businessmen stay late in the office to smoke cigarettes, so call anyway."

Her bosses thought such practices were perfectly acceptable because no Japanese customer had complained. They were concerned more about not being able to schedule appointments and not meeting their sales targets because the untalented local staff just could not manage their time professionally.

Another pitfall is that bright minds listen to their customers, but often take their messages too directly. Foreign managers can sometimes totally misinterpret the messages coming from their customers.

In Japan, delivering on time is important, and if delay is inevitable, customers expect you to notify them before they call you. For example, one foreign boss did not think one hour would make a difference to his customers. In a sense, the boss was right. Not one customer complained -- but they silently hired a competitor company.

When the customers announced they were working with somebody else, they complained to the first company's sales representative -- but actually apologized to the foreign CEO. The CEO felt that the customers were being sincere. He concluded that the customers were not happy with his sales force but were happy with his products, and were therefore genuinely sorry to discontinue doing business.

There are characteristics typical of foreign managers with a reputation. Even if they are lucky to have a good Japanese partner, they eventually lose their partner because of opinionated third parties. Also, when it comes to foreign problems, many Japanese who never seem to speak to each other become partners fast -- when the foreigners are out of sight.

Teaching Japan about global standards......................................
Japanese sorely need input from foreigners because they remain far behind the global standard.

After the bubble economy period, many Japanese company directors apologized and resigned. According to Hirose, Japan started to have professional corporate managers with clearly defined responsibilities only in the last five years.

"The presidents of Japanese corporations did not have to know anything, and nobody had to be responsible for anything. But this is slowly changing in Japan," he says. The opinion leaders in and outside of Japan cried out for the need to study global standards. "If you run a company the Japanese way, you will go bankrupt."

In many respects, Carlos Ghosn completely overhauled Nissan. Will Japanese be willing to accept more foreign leadership to catch up with global standards? Some Japanese are indeed now looking into western-style professional management for answers in business. They read MBA materials vigorously. Even an English conversation tip has more value if passed along by a native English-speaking MBA holder.

As one American journalist notes: "Ghosn is extraordinary because he exercises articulate leadership, not because he is a gaijin." He adds: "No matter what Japanese tell gaijins, we just have to admire Japan. You just have to love Japan to deserve success."

Japan has not been always sweet to Napalese Adhikari. He arrived in 1997 as a student and spent four years as a waiter. He spent two more years rolling pizza dough at an Italian restaurant during the day and shaking cocktails at a Roppongi bar until midnight.

But last year, he opened his first restaurant.
"Fortunately for us Nepalese, loving Japan is natural because we are Buddhists and have a lot in common with the Japanese. We suffer discrimination, but that's a fact of life in a foreign country."

Adhikari also states: "If I were to give a piece of advice to fellow gaijin entrepreneurs, it would be: do not go for quick big money, because it will not happen. I had zero business in the first three months or so. But also don't give up. You must think about continuing for a long term." And this means building relationships with the Japanese.

Chinese Cinderella......................................................................

Yukio Oowaku, a real estate consultant who has helped Asian entrepreneurs establish their bases in Japan, watched a 27-year-old self-employed construction worker from China climb the social ladder. Jiro Kikuchi was the son of a Japanese war orphan, and he was given the
Japanese surname by his father. But "nothing else was really Japanese about Kikuchi when he first came four years ago," recalls Oowaku.

After several months of intensive Japanese learning, Kikuchi participated in a Japanese speech contest hosted by a local friendship association. He flabbergasted the Japanese judges, all senior people, by proudly declaring that he was going to be a shacho (president). Kikuchi had been expected to speak about the miseries of the last war.

His speech was considered very un-Japanese.

With Oowaku's help, Kikuchi established a small yugen-gaisha firm, to continue what he used to do in China: plumbing works. He started with small jobs, and in only three years has acquired enough confidence in the industry to win a \10 million project from a major construction conglomerate.

Kikuchi was less than perfect when it came to the necessary paperwork -- he was unable to write detailed cost estimates. "However," Oowaku notes, "people from all levels were impressed by his attitude: work hard to achieve. Young people in Japan are not like that anymore." Oowaku feels being bright and different are secondary to one's attitude. Ultimately, the Japanese must be happy working with you.

The American journalist agrees: "Technically, attention to details will help you in Japan. But more importantly, you need to be truly sincere and really willing to work with the Japanese."
It may take no special talent, but evidently not just anyone can succeed here. @

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