U.S. managers learn Japanese ways

Business travel

January 20, 1992|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,Knight-Ridder News Service

Over the last few years, a mini-industry has blossomed to help Americans understand not only how Japanese businesses operate but how vital it can be to understand the country's

customs, dining etiquette and business protocol.

For business travelers, numerous guidebooks are available to help. Besides supplying basic information such as how to reach downtown Tokyo from the airport and recommending certain hotels, most of the books now also include a section on business protocol.

For those who want to assure that they develop ongoing relationships with the Japanese, both here at home and in Japan, even more in-depth study than the guidebooks offer may be needed.

That's where a protocol authority, such as New York-based Sondra Snowdon, can be invaluable to a business or individuals just starting to do business with the Japanese.

Ms. Snowdon was the author, in 1986, of "The Global Edge," a handbook of protocol and business practices in 25 countries. BTC Her company, Snowdon International Protocol Inc., now

publishes a series of more detailed individual guidebooks for 15 countries.

The books provide a thorough grounding in doing business and can help avoid critical missteps that could kill a long-planned deal.

In dealing with the Japanese, Ms. Snowdon says, it is crucial to remember that they place a high value on formality and punctuality and on correct dress, manners, speech and behavior. Respecting an individual's rank within a company, and how that relates to developing long-term relationships, are other keys to successfully doing business with the Japanese.

"For instance, our marketing strategies [in U.S. companies] are very different," Ms. Snowdon said in a recent interview. "To the Japanese, it's based on relationship-building. To us, a five-year relationship is long-term, while to the Japanese it would be short-term."

The exchange of business cards when a U.S. businessperson first meets a Japanese counterpart is an example of how all the important factors work together as a relationship develops. Business cards, preferably printed in English and Japanese, are a good way of introducing oneself, and they should be presented with both hands at the beginning of a meeting.

But well before a meeting takes place, for a relationship to get off to a good start, it will be necessary for an American to be introduced to his or her Japanese business contact by a third party.

The rank or status of the individual making the introduction will have an influence on the rank of the person with whom you end up dealing, Ms. Snowdon said.

"Make sure the go-between who introduces you is strong," she said. "When you finally meet, all the work of the introduction has been done. The exchange of business cards is only a formality."

Here are some of the other basic points that Ms. Snowdon and other specialists in Japanese business protocol make:

* Avoid the impression that you are in a hurry. It takes time to build trust, friendship and loyalty. As negotiations proceed, always send the same representatives.

* Avoid any high-pressure sales techniques. If an agreement can't be reached, don't try to change the other party's mind on the spot. Americans prefer persuasion and logic more than the Japanese do.

* Learn to recognize cues that mean no. The Japanese avoid the word no to a verbal request and may laugh, out of p embarrassment, not amusement, or say, "It's very difficult," when pressed on a question they don't want to answer.

* Be prepared for long periods of silence during negotiations, something that often makes Americans uncomfortable.

* Downplay lawyers and references to legal review of a proposal. The Japanese value "wa," or harmony, in all relationships.

* Accept graciously any offer of hospitality and be prepared for extensive business entertainment on the part of Japanese hosts.

* Learn about the ritual of pouring and drinking sake, to appreciate Japanese food and to eat with chopsticks.

Ms. Snowdon adds that knowing about Japanese dining customs is an endeavor unto itself.

Besides learning about food and drink and how it is prepared and consumed, there often is a highly formalized system of seating in a Japanese dining room. Where the senior person in a Japanese group sits indicates his rank, and likewise, the most senior guest will have a place of honor, on the right of the senior host or directly opposite him if the table is rectangular.

Many companies now include instruction in business protocol as part of efforts to get their employees ready for doing more international business and participating in a global economy.

For instance, several times a year, KPMG Peat Marwick, the accounting firm, brings partners in its international division to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania for a six-day program that deals with conducting international business.

One day of the six is devoted to doing business with the Japanese. At the end of the day, the group gathers at the Meiji-in, a Philadelphia Japanese restaurant, to learn about Japanese dining customs.

The evening is topped off by karaoke singing, a popular Japanese pastime in which individual businessmen sing as their favorite recorded background music is played.

The whole program is "not so much training as it is to sensitize," said KPMG Vice Chairman Steve Harlan. "What we're trying to do is to get everyone to pay attention to the differences."

Snowdon International's series of guidebooks and related material sells for about $100 for each country covered. The company's address is One World Trade Center, Suite 7967, New York, N.Y., 10048.

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