Learning business in Japan

More than 200 people from around the United States learned how to do business in Japan at a conference Friday at Southern Oregon University.

The second annual Global Conference, jointly organized by Ashland Chamber of Commerce and SOU, touched on history between the two nations, current trade practices and cultural differences that can often result in misunderstandings.

Many attendees were from West Coast states, but people from as far away as New York made the trek to learn about the nuances of doing business with Japan, organizers said.

Dave Harris, dean of SOU's School of Business and an event organizer, said part of the reason for the nationwide draw was the quality of the panel experts, as well as Oregon's record of conducting trade with the Asian markets.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., told the crowd about Randall McDonald, an Astoria bank clerk who in 1848 tried to break through the "bamboo curtain" of Japan.

Japan was a closed society at the time and it was against the law for foreigners to enter. Undeterred, McDonald boarded a whaling ship, washed up on Japan's shore after his boat capsized, was arrested and subsequently made friends while in prison and started teaching the locals English, Walden said.

"He is credited with taking the first step to opening the borders with Japan," he said.

Today, Japan has 100 businesses headquartered in Oregon and employs more than 8,000 Oregonians, said keynote speaker Akio Egawa, consul general of Japan, who lives in Portland.

"At one time, there was friction between the two nations," he said. "Today, Japan and the U.S. have a strong economic relationship. The U.S. trade deficit with Japan has declined in recent years. And we would like to see more direct U.S. investment in Japan."

The global conference held two panel discussions: "How to Utilize Existing Resources" and "How to Do Business in Japan."

Many of the speakers talked about cultural differences between Japanese and American people.

Paul Taylor, who specializes in international law in Portland, said, "Japan is a delightful place to visit and do business, but it isn't without its challenges."

He listed key strategies to keep in mind in order to successfully conduct business in Japan.

Taylor said the two cultures are very different, and "saving face" is deeply ingrained with the Japanese. He gave an example of how an American might misunderstand the concept.

"An American business man says to a Japanese business man, 'OK, so I'll put you down for one million widgets.' And the Japanese man says, 'Yes.' Now, what the American doesn't know is that 'yes' could mean 'yes, I want one million widgets.' It could also mean 'yes, I understand what you are saying.' Or it could mean 'yes, you are speaking English and I understand what you're saying.' Or it could mean 'yes, I have no intention of ever purchasing one million widgets, but I don't want to embarrass you, so I'm saving your face and saying yes.'"

Taylor also pointed out that Japan's customer-focused society goes much further than the American "customers are always right" philosophy.

"In Japan, the customer is God," he said.

Jeff DeBoer, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Lithia Motors in Medford, served as a translator in Japan for many years. He said the key to doing business there is respect.

"Be humble," he said. "This is not the time to be your loud, arrogant American self."

DeBoer said he always has a cigarette lighter ready so that he can light a senior company official's cigarette as a sign of great respect.

Two panelists also demonstrated the proper way to hand out business cards: always with two hands, with your hands lower than the Japanese.

Teresa Van Olphen, operations manager and CFO for Pacific Domes International in Ashland, said she came to the conference because her company is getting ready to do business in Japan.

"We of course don't want to communicate any cultural faux pas," she said, adding that the information she learned at the conference was invaluable.

"You have to know the market," Van Olphen said. "It's foolish to steam-roll into a foreign market and not know the language, laws, distribution and cultural differences."

She and a colleague plan to study Japanese and enlist the help of SOU international students from Japan to help with translating.

Last year's conference dealt with doing business in China.

Jeresa Hren, a vice president with US Bank in Medford, helped organize that conference and served as a panel speaker.

She said last year's event was incredibly successful.

"It's such a great way for people to connect and learn what each other is doing," she said. "We were surprised to learn how many people were actually already doing business in China. And we've had lots of people who suggest doing a six-month follow-up."

Organizers were already planning for the 2009 global conference that will focus on doing business in Mexico.

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