Annette Azuma explains why there's never been a better time for Kiwi businesses to venture into Japan, and shares her top tips for doing business in 'The Land of the Rising Sun'.
Japan is riding a record high when it comes to foreign direct investment, with the total topping NZ$15 billion annually at the end of 20161.
The value of investing in the Japanese market is no secret to many New Zealand businesses, with firms like Cookie Time, Dad’s Pies and NZ Hot House Tomatoes already successfully tapping into opportunities in Japan and establishing lucrative footprints offshore.
In fact, Japan is New Zealand’s fourth largest export market and fifth largest trading partner. It has been rated as the 8th most attractive destination for multinational companies for the 2016 to 2018 period, and for good reason2.
Looking ahead over the next four years, Japan is set to become an even bigger target for foreign investors as it becomes the epicentre of the sporting world with the 2019 Rugby World Cup, 2020 Olympic Games and 2021 World Masters Games taking place over consecutive years.
Not only will Japan play host to millions of tourists, but Japanese goods and services will gain unprecedented exposure to the global market, opening doors for local and foreign investors alike.
With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assuming leadership of the TPP agreement and vowing to bring it into effect, even without support from the US, trade and investment ties between Japan and New Zealand look set to strengthen, with the hope that tariffs on some of our major exports like dairy will be relaxed.
Few would argue there has been a better time for Kiwi businesses to consider expanding into the Japanese market. For those that do decide to take the plunge, here are my top tips for doing business in Japan:
1. Talk to the experts
Enlist the help of experts and organisations dedicated to streamlining the process for you like Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO) and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). These organisations have established connections on the ground and a wealth of experience when it comes to what works and what doesn’t to save you making the same mistakes as others. They also have valuable data and insights to guide your decision making on where, when and how to go about exporting to, or setting up business in, Japan.
2. Talk to fellow businesses
Seek out Kiwi businesses who have 'been there and done that' to hear their stories and gain first-person perspectives on the do’s and don’ts. While each business is unique and your experiences are likely to differ, speaking to others who have walked the path you’re about to take can help to give you clarity and a better sense of the direction you want to take your own business. Ongoing constructive guidance and the ability to sense-check can go a long way when you’re taking a big step like expanding offshore.
Be prepared to be flexible and adjust your products to suit the unique Japanese market, for example size and taste considerations for food and beverage items.
3. Visit Japan
Nothing compares to being on the ground and experiencing the market environment first hand.
This gives you an opportunity to explore, identify competitors and gaps in the market and make connections with suppliers and potential partners. It pays to visit in different seasons, particularly if you’re in the food and beverage industry, as market conditions do fluctuate. Arranging meet and greet opportunities through organisations like JETRO and NZTE can also pay dividends, so it’s worthwhile getting in touch well before you leave to make the most of your time in Japan.
4. Focus on the New Zealand story
New Zealand is well regarded internationally as a country with high integrity and a pure image, and this resonates well with the Japanese. Use this to your advantage by demonstrating your sustainability efforts, where applicable, and by communicating your brand heritage or journey effectively. That ‘Made In NZ’ sticker could go a long way.
5. Check and re-check Japanese translations
Be sure to have any Japanese text, including communications and marketing material, checked by a professional translator to prevent any misinterpretations and embarrassments. Small oversights in this area can be devastating to a business trying to gain a foothold in the Japanese market. What could be a positive message or brand name could mean something entirely different when translated to Japanese.
6. Brush up on culture
Navigating Japanese culture and customs can be complex. Whether it’s knowing how to place your chopsticks on your plate, how to greet business contacts or how to behave in a meeting, it’s worthwhile familiarising yourself with these ahead of any face-to-face interactions with Japanese business people.
7. Be prepared to stay out late
While doing business around the boardroom table can be a serious and conservative affair, doing business around the dinner table is an entirely different experience. Japan is a relationship-based culture and demonstrating that you can enjoy drinks and dinner with your new business contacts can be critical to building their trust. Drinking alcohol is an important Japanese bonding ritual with clients, suppliers and others you will be in regular contact with as part of your new business venture. Karaoke and golf also play an important part in Japanese business.
8. Be patient, sincere and don’t give up
Japan is an amazing place to do business. Establishing connections and relationships can take time. Be prepared for many queries, answer in a sincere and methodical manner and never give up. My Japanese husband has drummed into our sons since birth: “Gaman” - be patient; and “Gambatte” - always do your best and don’t give up. Both virtues are extremely important for Japanese life and business.
9. Forget the laid back Kiwi attitude
Japan is an extremely precise country and culture where things run like clockwork. Always turn up to meetings on time and never, ever promise something you can’t deliver on.
1] Japan Foreign Investment, Santander.
2] 2016 UNCTAD Report on world investment.