“Hey KJ (that’s me), I’ve set you up for a meeting with a CEO from the U.S. coming to our Tokyo office,” my colleague halfway across the world messages me.
As a UX design consultant across cultures and as a native Japanese and English speaker, I have spoken with many business leaders from all over the world who have the desire to expand their business into the Japanese market.
Since you are reading this article, chances are you are a business leader looking for the right partners who can help expand your business into the Japanese market or maybe expecting to have the first meeting with them soon. Entering a new market and finding partners is thrilling, but intimidating at the same time, especially if you don’t know much about the market. You may be asking yourself many questions like “How do I know if I am talking to the right person who can help us grow in Japan?” or “What should I know before meeting with my potential Japanese business partner?”
I decided to write this article to share what you can expect from a successful meeting with potential marketing agencies and business partners overseas who can help your business successfully grow in the Japanese market.
Kokorogamae (心構え): Mental preparedness
Before we jump in, I want to explain what Kokorogamae is. The word “kokorogamae (心構え)” means “mental preparedness”. Kokoro (心) represents the mind, spirit, and heart while kamae (構) represents posture, structure, and readiness.
It is often used to describe a situation when one feels the need to thoroughly prepare the mind before embarking on a challenge or a new experience.
With this mindset, let’s dive into what you can expect from your first meeting with your potential business partners in Japan.
The first 15 minutes: You speak, I listen
You’ve come a long way and it’s your first time in Japan. You probably stopped by at a coffee shop for a large latte, not only because you love coffee, but also because you’re familiar with Starbucks as you have it back home. You like the comfort it gives you in a foreign place as Starbucks is one of the more English friendly places you’ve found in Tokyo so far. Welcome friend, I’m here to help in the Japanese Omotenashi (hospitable) style with a handshake and a bow.
Typically, the meeting between us would generally go back and forth, but for the first fifteen crucial minutes, you’re speaking and I’m listening. You have so much to say about the business journey you’ve been on and I want to listen to it all. You’d pour your whole heart out if you could, but you don’t know me very well, not yet anyway. I think to myself that, you’re smart for coming all the way to this country to let your stakeholders know how serious you are about Japan market entry. This brave act alone, coming to get a taste of what it’s like out here, is many steps ahead of those who only read about business in Japan from blog articles like this. We in Japan love people who are curious and respectful very much.
Understanding your journey
You told me how excited you are when you explained how you think entering the Japanese market will be a challenge because your product and service may be many years ahead of the market. I saw that excitement on your face and felt it in your voice.
Now, it’s my turn. I ask a few questions about how much you know about the market you’re trying to enter. But really, I just want to see how you react to the questions.
You reply, “not enough.”
And sure enough, that gets me excited. I think, ”What a great answer with such humility.” It’s always a good sign when business leaders can admit that they don’t know enough about something. This makes you relatable. We’re human and can never know enough.
I keep probing you with questions because I’m curious. I want to understand how you are currently navigating through your journey and making decisions along the way.
You acknowledge that your journey ahead will be a challenge because it’ll test your patience for consumers in Japan to “get it (the value of your service)”. You add that you don’t want to jump into the market headfirst without a clear idea as to what the marketing strategy will be. I nod my head listening to you. I agree with your careful approach. It’s healthy.
When you can embrace the value of being careful, you can set yourself up to understand the true value of jumping in full-throttle. Feeling out the timing for when to be careful and when to jump in must at least be considered on the journey for success.
Networking: Building “friendships”
I will also ask you questions, such as “Have you met this person? Do you know of this person? No?” because I want you to meet them. I’ll explain why meeting them could matter. You’ll soon realize that there are so many people you ought to meet that could help you and your team to get your service and product out there.
I’ll be happy to connect you with them in Japanese. You’ll even pick up some Japanese words from me. I’ll teach you because I know how a little bit of action can go a long way to make your stay here in Tokyo more enjoyable for you and enrich your personal life beyond business.
After the meeting
You’ve said everything you had to say. I will have explained to you the good, the bad, and the ugly truths on what it’ll take to succeed in Japan with a smile on my face because the thought alone of the challenges ahead gives me joy.
You’ll know you were in a meaningful meeting if you ended our conversation saying, “I think so too,” with an inspired and confirming nod.
You’ll receive an honest assessment on the way you are thinking about your business. This honest assessment shall empower you to make any necessary mindset shifts and strategic adaptations you may have to make for the success of your business.
Tips for a successful meeting
Without passion, you wouldn’t be reading this. And without passion, I wouldn’t even write these words. You’re probably reading this because you wanted to know that someone in Japan could help you do business here, enriching your experience to be more than just selling or making profits. I’d make the effort to contribute to our shared passion by sorting out your thoughts, asking challenging straightforward questions. “Why you? Why this? Why now?” Be prepared. You and your team will feel empowered.
Soon enough, you’ll find that you can learn and communicate in a way that speaks to the Japanese consumer because your authenticity goes beyond cultures and straight to the heart. With the meaningful friendships you made, you’ll consider what is really necessary for your service and product. You’ll find that you won’t be so one-sided in communicating your ideas to others, which is why most business leaders fail when they come here and enter the market.
Be transparent. Be level-headed. Be curious about new experiences. Be honest to yourself and to your stakeholders. Be a people-person who goes beyond your comfort zone. Keep your mind on helping people. Learn a few Japanese words and phrases. Help your partners help you.
Be inclusive, open, imaginative, cooperative, and hone your senses. Be useful, helpful, and valuable to the people in Japan and to your colleagues. Most importantly, be yourself and have fun. When you have fun, you’ll make it fun for all.
Your service and product will breathe a life of its own with all these efforts. It won’t go unnoticed.
Now that’s a killer start to business in Japan.
The benefits of befriending your potential business partners and competitors
When entering a market you don’t know much about, sure, you can do desk research, but there will be more things to think about and many instances in which you will need to use your senses to feel for success. It’ll come down to understanding the politics of the market in Japan. That means understanding people, power, and influence.
Your focus will be on building friendships in the new market through your services and products. By enjoying this process, you will embrace learning and growing to the fullest. You’ll know that you’ll want to continually innovate to delight people with this kind of enthusiasm because you are at best when you can continually grow yourself. It makes your journey meaningful for you, your team, and all that are involved. It takes patience, willingness, and bold yet methodical moves to change and adapt to the market and make friends who can support you with information, but more importantly with insights. Your success will hinge on your charisma and creativity to find ways to develop win-win relationships.
You’ll need to know exactly who your competitors are and how they operate, but more importantly, how you may befriend them. Chances are that while you’re immersed in making plans to increase profits or to take advantage of untapped territories, someone is already on it. This is why your bottom dollar needs to invest in partnerships with people who can fully imagine the opportunities and challenges that go beyond identifying markets and building products and services, which includes investing in partnerships with your competitors.
Your new partners and friends who can relate to your vision and your unique journey will see how the service and product can really make a difference in consumer behavior, enriching their lives. In turn, they will appropriately challenge the ideas when necessary for the good health of mutual friendship and successful business. Together, you both will be thankful for each other.
Putting kokorogamae into practice
Here are some questions for you to chew on. Please think through these questions below before you have your first meeting with your potential partners in Japan.
- What resources do you have right now and who do you know?
- What are your ambitions in doing business in Japan? Why are you doing this business?
- What new commitments will each person on your team think they will have when expanding your business to Japan?
- What are your potential barriers to entry?
- What are the expectations you have of yourself, your stakeholders, and potential partners in doing business in Japan?
- Be optimistic. Where do you want to be six months, a year, or even five years from now?
- To meet your long-term goal, what has to be true?
- Be pessimistic. Imagine you travel into the future and the business has failed. What might have caused that? Which part of your goal setting could have gone wrong?
- What does success and failure in Japan look like to you?
- How will your customers in Japan trust your expertise?
- Why will people in Japan find your service and product valuable?
- What assumptions do you have about doing business in Japan?
The key is being honest and comfortable with yourself in answering these questions and making changes along the way as you learn more and more. Immerse yourself in the experience of allowing these questions to carry you through an unknown future. Answer them and help your potential partners help you create a solid foundation for a successful business in Japan.
Entering a foreign market can be intimidating, especially without the knowledge of the language and culture. With our bilingual and cross-cultural team located in San Francisco and Tokyo, we can help you overcome the obstacles of entering the Japanese market. Contact us to connect with our team! If you enjoyed this article and want more, sign up for our newsletter or follow us on LinkedIn. We look forward to connecting with you!
Edit by: Julie Saephan