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Working with Japanese

Knowing your customer is doubly important if they're Japanese - and doubly difficult
Pernille Rudlin
Jan 10, 2018 04:52 AM

There's no excuse these days for not knowing your customer, thanks to the easily available information on LinkedIn and other networking sites.

But as those who work in or with Japan owned companies know, there's not quite the depth of information in English on Japanese companies or individuals on such sites or even in the print media.

It's easier if you can speak and read Japanese, as there is an enormous amount of information on Japanese companies available - in Japanese. There are racks of books on individual companies in Japanese bookstores and all sorts of specialist and generalist business and financial newspapers and magazines. Japan has one of the highest readerships of newspapers and magazines in the world.

Good Japanese sales people not only know all the latest news about their customers, but they know plenty of personal details about their counterparts in those companies too. The party trick of a president of a Japanese engineering company I knew was to recite off by heart all the birthdays, universities and family details of his key clients. To him this was a critical part of the long-term business relationships he had built up with his clients – something his father, who founded the company – had also done.

Japanese blue chips are still so much a part of people’s daily lives as lifetime employers, providers of benefits such as accommodation and even spouses - as well as defining one’s status in society - that very few Japanese companies need to worry about what their levels of “brand awareness” are amongst the Japanese populace.

Outside Japan it is entirely different of course. All too often the name is familiar, but when asked exactly what the company provides, the average non-Japanese consumer hesitates. Many Japanese companies are aware that they have a name recognition problem overseas, but are not sure what to do about it and it is often not in their nature, or the nature of their executives to trumpet themselves loudly, especially not in English.

As a result, if you want to supply to a Japanese company inside or outside Japan, you need to understand that the Japanese company does not see the need to explain itself or does not know how to explain itself. It somehow expects you to know. 

As Japanese companies have been through upheavals since the economic bubble burst in 1990 and the Asian banking crisis in 1997, some understanding of who merged with whom and where the power lies (again, second nature to most Japanese suppliers) needs to be grasped.

It would also be a mistake to imagine that all Japanese companies are alike in their overseas operations. If they expanded overseas by acquisition, they may behave just like a local customer, and the purchasing manager may well be non-Japanese. However, at some point, the Japanese corporate culture will kick in, and identifying those moments when the Japanese way of doing things has taken hold will be key to avoiding unnecessary frustration and misunderstanding.

For more on working with Japanese customers (internal and external) an edited collection of Pernille Rudlin's articles on the subject is now available in print format on

Japan Intercultural Consulting's e-learning on working with Japanese companies is also available on

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