A while ago, we gave you some insight on how a foreign designer set up his company in Japan. This time we’re letting a university professor explain from a researcher’s point of view. Austria’s Parissa Haghirian is Associate Professor of International Management at Sophia University in Tokyo and visiting professor for Japanese Management at Keio Business School, among other things. She’s writing about business opportunities in Japan and has a new book, “Markteintritt in Japan” (Market Entry in Japan). Since it’s in German, PingMag visited Parissa at Sophia Uni for tips about how to bring your product to Japan, how to work here as foreigner and what kind of fundamental differences you might encounter. OK, we will try to avoid some of the clichés you might have in mind…
Written by Verena
Could you explain your book about entering the Japanese market?
First of all, this book is based on my personal experience entering Japan as a person and making a career in Japan. I’ve been doing research projects on how small and medium-sized companies enter Japan, and a cross-cultural research project on how Germans see Japanese managers and Japanese managers see German managers, and how to work together. Basically, I investigated all the stages of a market entry, such as how do people make up the idea of going to Japan, what happens when they start opening a business, how do they find a Japanese partner, and the different problems they encounter in different stages. At the beginning, most of the people don’t have a very clear strategy when they enter the Japanese market…
Let’s say, you’re a product designer and want to sell your creations to Japan. Where would you start?
There are different stages: Usually, if you’re already an established company back home, you find a Japanese partner. Traditionally this was a Japanese trading company. However, compared to 10 years ago, it’s quite complicated to get a trading partner now. Then, most problems occur when finding the partner, for example, there are a lot of complications when talking or getting information from the partner. What usually happens is that the partner has a million questions and a lot that aren’t related to the business in Japan. This is the most delicate phase of the whole entry process — and this is where half of the projects stay.
What if it’s just you, and you’re overseas?
What I would do is try to find somebody who is established and living here. A student, for example, or somebody who is having a day job as an English teacher. This person could spend half a day a week or two days a week on bringing the product to Japan and building contacts, and so on. This is shown to be a very cheap and easy way of trying to get your product into the market if you’re not here yourself.
And if you’re, say, a fashion designer or a web designer who wants to come to Japan to live and work here — what can you do to get a sponsor and a visa?
If you enter, you either have to have a company that sponsors you which can be quite difficult if you don’t have skills that people really need. Or you have to get an entrepreneur visa which is even more difficult. Because then you have to have a company here already and you have to show that you’re profitable and you have to hire two employees.
However the easiest way would be to come here and get a traditional job yourself, such as English teacher, and start promoting your business part-time. And I’ve interviewed a number of entrepreneurs in Japan in various fields — and they all started as teachers or with a full-time or a part-time job in a company and then opened up a business. I know people who worked for seven years in a traditional job until they had the possibility to live on their business. Usually, it would be two years.
So, you need a lot of patience, never mind the initial challenges beyond the language barrier such as, for example, finding a space and being able to rent it by yourself…
First of all, you need a guarantor to have an apartment — and apartment space is extremely expensive. You need to put down up to five or six months rent before you come in.
Apart from that, something people never think about is that you don’t have to start in Tokyo. Tokyo is the toughest place, the competition is the highest, and it’s the most expensive spot. Osaka or, let’s say, Fukuoka is a much quieter place a thousand kilometres down the road. If you’re there and you have a good idea of design, this is a much easier place to be and get to know the people.
That’s very true. But on the other hand, there’s a good foreign designers’ network in Tokyo.
Yes, but still the competition is very strong, too. If you’re in a smaller place you can make a name just by being the only foreigner doing things like that. Tokyo is a very competitive place, especially for creative people; it is the hub of all business in Japan and there are many opportunities. However, most people need to find a job to make a living first and can only then slowly start to build a career in a creative field. This may take a year or two. Japanese business is extremely relationship oriented, and it therefore takes a while until a young designer has the right contacts and can earn money with his or her ideas.
Sounds reasonable! Now, when it comes to actually working in a Japanese agency, the structure can be a little different compared to a Western company. Please tell us more about that!
You mean Japanese management? I would say it’s very different from a Western-style management perspective. As you know, Japanese society is very group oriented. Working in a Japanese team therefore means that one has to think of the group first and only then about one’s individual wishes. So the behaviour of the people is very strongly oriented towards groups: First of all, you do what other people do and you try to do it as good as you can — and you don’t really question things that happen within the group. This can be a challenge for Westerners.
The biggest differences can be observed in decision making. In a Japanese team ideas are most likely discussed on a group level. For example: One person has a new idea, which is then discussed by all members of the team. The idea is then improved and becomes a group idea. Every group member is involved and feels motivated by the group dynamic. These group processes take a long while, but at the end all members of the group support the idea, since they participated in developing the idea right from the beginning. Japanese groups are therefore very effective in implementing their ideas.
There are a number of features that a Japanese group is famous for. For example, once you’re a member, a group is very strongly dedicated to you — but you’re not supposed to leave very quickly. Meaning Japanese companies prefer people who stay, they all prefer long or lifetime employment still. That’s one of the major problems finding a job because if you only want to stay for two years, it’s difficult. Companies don’t like that here.
People give you a lot of responsibility. They’re very willing to build your company around you, and if you just say ‘OK, I’ve got a new job! Bye-bye!’ this is a disaster for a Japanese group because, first of all, there is a long-term perspective. It’s difficult to enter Japanese groups because of that, and it’s also difficult to leave. Inside the group, there’s a very strong hierarchy. The ones that have been here longer have a higher position. And within the group, there’s a very high process orientation, so everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do. There’s no way to start improving the processes on your own!
For a Westerner that can be kind of challenging…
For a Westerner that is very difficult, because if you want to improve a process you have to involve everybody. And that’s a long, ongoing discussion until you do something. There’s no way you can just team out and say, ‘OK, I’m doing this by myself because this is much better.’ But, because of that, there’s very little control within a Japanese company. In most cases they don’t control at all because everybody is together all the time, they see each other all the time. And for westerners, this seems like very free work. But it doesn’t mean that you can do what you like or be as individual as you like, and especially if you’re in the creative industry, it may be a problem. If you work in a place like that, you strongly have to adapt to the workflow in the company. This is a real challenge in the beginning!
Also, people are very dedicated to their job. There’s not a very clear distinction between private life and company life, so people know much more about you, and they expect you to dedicate a lot of private time to the company as well. So, you are supposed to go out drinking with your friends from the company, you meet them on the weekends and you have to stay as long as possible.
But that’s certainly not the same in every company…
A lot of Japanese company procedures are based on that idea. So if you don’t go out to the drinking events after work, you miss out on half of the information. Usually, when I talk to foreigners who have problems in Japanese offices, they tell me that they go home at five o’clock or six, or seven, because their husbands or wives are waiting at home. But if you go out once a week for beer with your colleagues, this is going to change the whole situation and it always works. Since there is so much information exchanged in these informal meetings, if you don’t know that you’re in trouble at some point. So the attitude of not talking about things is not really the same once you leave the office.
One could think that this applies to the traditional companies, but not so much anymore to the media industry or the ad agencies…
No, I don’t think so. Of course, they’re famous for bringing in a lot of alternative ideas. In the ways that they do design, there may be much more alternative or much more open or, in some sense, more creative ideas. But I don’t believe that the big Japanese design or advertising agencies don’t have this hierarchical system. I worked for Japanese TV, for tv asahi, and it was extremely hierarchical.
Professor Parissa Haghirian of Sophia Uni in Tokyo.
What else do you find important when trying to get into the Japanese Market?
Even if the Japanese work environment is quite challenging at the beginning, the biggest hurdles are customer expectations. Japanese customers are not only the wealthiest, but also the most sophisticated customers. Usually firms have to adapt their quality and service standards to Japanese expectations. This is also the case in the creative industry. Delays in delivery, products defects or low quality will not be accepted at all.
It’s all about the service! Thank you Parissa for enlightening us a bit about the possibilities for designers from overseas!
Beloved readers, after two years, this is my (nearly) last work of love as editor of PingMag! From next year, I’ll be refreshing a German design mag as editor. So if you want to say Hi!, I’m up for tea on Facebook, on the other usual networks (and on some blog)… Thank you, and sleep well! Verena Dauerer