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The challenge of selling to Japan: how to enter a market that can pay US$100 for a wine, without dying in the effort?


Japan imports 60% of the food it consumes, for which it pays about $44 billion a year. It is the third largest economy on the planet by size of GDP and has approximately 127 million inhabitants, very high purchasing power and education levels (90% with tertiary studies), concentrated in an area equal to that of the province of Entre Ríos ( The rest are mountains and forests).

as consumers, The Japanese are demanding and sophisticated, For example, being able to pay up to $100 for high-end wines and between $20 and $30 for mid-range wines.

Entering Japan is an almost automatic entry to other high-value Asian destinations that adopt its trends, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and, most recently, Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia. There are many reasons for wanting to export to that country, in addition, It is he who has the deepest ties with Argentina, with all the peoples of Asia.

but at the same time, For a Westerner (and perhaps even more so for Argentines), it is very difficult to interact with the Japanese, Not only because of the great demands regarding the products (quality, health, packaging), but also because of the negotiation process: the temperaments are very different, they attach great importance to formality and protocol, and it is very easy to screw up.

key to sell in japan

Japanese-born Argentinean Ricardo Hara, Japan’s agricultural engineer, consultant and business manager, says that, above all, one should be aware that all interaction with Japanese takes time, and that behavior is adapted to cultural patterns and behaviors. Should be.

“While we have personal conversations, In Japan there is never one interlocutor, but a groupWho can’t even decide. There is bureaucracy, so hard techniques (pushing for a deal, claiming less time available, bargaining prices) don’t work.”

The Japanese are inquisitive, they love to try new things, and they tend to set trends in other Asian countries with high purchasing power. Photo: Courtesy of Ricardo Hara.

The Japanese are inquisitive, they love to try new things, and they set trends in other Asian countries.

On the other hand, don’t expect strong answers. “Slightly so as not to break trust and to maintain second harmony, the Japanese tend to be ambiguous: they don’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they have formulas. ‘We’ll think about it’ can mean ‘ no’, and A ‘yes’ may indicate understanding, not acceptance.” Hara explains. Therefore, it is important to have not only a Japanese translator (although the language of dialogue is English), but also someone who decodes the behavior.

“You have to be a Buddhist monk: Closing a business is exhausting, sometimes frustrating: they ask for the same information many times, many samples, but it is the necessary route. The good thing is, Once an agreement is reached, it is followed to the letter and is very interesting and profitable in the long term”. Assures the expert.

prepare for the meeting

It should be remembered that “decisions are from bottom to top; it’s very difficult to start a conversation through a decision maker before you have to talk to employees, managers,” says Hara. “People can’t answer, they’re not empowered, but the company as a whole does. It also makes them experts at delving into practices, having more information and confidence going forward.”

Hara insists that it is worth paying close attention to formalities and following them to the letter, and some details:

  • dress: The Japanese go to work fairly uniform in a light white or light blue shirt, with a dark tie, in dark tones, and it’s convenient to blend in. Clothes should not be sporty or flashy.

  • Time: This is absolutely a priority. If a meeting is scheduled for 9:00, it means it starts at 9:00: you must arrive 10 minutes early. Excuses for delay are not accepted. The last time has also come to an end.

  • Initial Greetings: It is advisable to leave the initiative and emulate what others do. This is usually a bow (in which the degree of the bow shows interest and respect), or a handshake. They avoid physical contact (kiss, hugs) which they consider unhealthy.

  • deal: The first name is not used, but the last name, preceded by “Mr.” for Westerners or with the suffix “san” as an expression of respect.

  • Subject: It is very strict, so you have to be careful in the assembly and include all the issues that you want to discuss in the meeting, because it will be very difficult to add anything later.

  • Verbal and Body Language: Avoid exaggeration; Use a medium and clear tone.

  • Business Card (Meshi): They are necessary, their absence is considered rude. They are exchanged at the beginning of the meeting with both hands and a small bow, which is directed towards the person receiving it so that they can read it. Those that are received should never be kept in their pockets, they are lined up on the visible table, to remember the name.

  • prop material: You have to come to the meeting with a lot of preparation: folders, brochures, everything in English and very clear. And keep in mind that there are going to be many other teams at times, each with a specialty and responsibility, and they should be treated without distinction.

  • initial chat: Before going into business, a brief conversation is started without touching on controversial topics (politics, religion, war) or personal (unless they ask). You can talk about the weather, how you traveled, etc.

The Japanese Don'T Sign Documents, As They Go Through The Approval Stages, They Add Stamps.  Photo: Courtesy Of Ricardo Hara.

The Japanese don’t sign documents, as they go through the approval stages, they add stamps. Photo: Courtesy of Ricardo Hara.

The Japanese don’t sign documents, as they go through the approval stages, they add stamps.

  • personal opinion: They are not common, Japanese speak in terms of “we”, they prefer the group to the individual. “Levi Strauss said that Japanese is not a subject but a consequence of the environment”, reflects Hara in this regard.

  • business gift: It is normal to exchange them at the beginning or at the end of the first meeting. “The ceremony of the gift (the way it is wrapped and delivered) is as important as the gift itself,” says the expert. Normally, they are not opened upon receipt.

Baad and Kanpai: Fundamental Examples

After the meeting, Hara says, Japanese usually invite over dinner or karaokeAnd it would be a big mistake not to know: “It is part of the relaxation, where the differences of superior-inferiority end (the legacy of Confucianism) and Personal relationships and trust deepen. Hot topics are also often addressed more explicitly.”

In these Japanese meals, he explains, there are going to be countless toasts (kanpai) of beer, wine, sake, and they have to be reciprocated. “There are many things to be settled, and critical comments to be made: then it is possible to apologise by blaming the wine.”

understand the culture

To interact effectively with Japan, it’s important to know its cultural and behavioral patterns, Hara says. and it highlights the vital importance of Self-confidenceFor Japanese culture, not in essence, but because it also translates into saving time, lower costs, and more effective and lasting relationships.

Regarding the fundamental characteristics of Japanese culture, Hara highlights five: narrownesswhich kept the country virtually free from Western influences until the middle of the 19th century; synchronicity Shintoism, between Zen Buddhism and Confucianism, which laid down social and cultural guidelines and gave rise to the Warrior’s Path (or Samurai Code); disciplinewith subordination of individual norms to collective norms, associated with punctuality, respect, order and cleanliness, visible in daily life, functioning of institutions and self-control; eclecticism, is related to pragmatism, meaning neither sticking to paradigms or axioms, nor wasting time on intellectual digressions, but taking what is good to make things work, and different behavior in public and private is also reflected in; And this harmonyFrom the Meiji Restoration (1867), by which there is a healthy expression between social groups, family, companies, state and nature, with which it seeks to interact and preserve rather than conquer.

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