Originally posted on LinkedIn.

Two years ago, I landed in Vancouver, Canada to expand my career opportunities. Ever since, I’ve noticed a couple sharp distinctions between North American and Japanese business ethics.

If you’re planning on working with Japanese companies or professionals who were born and raised in Japan, you should know how they differ from their North American counterparts. When it comes to business ethics and common challenges, there are a few to note.

I’m going to share with you the three major roadblocks that you could come across when you enter the Japanese market, which includes business and culture. I want to make sure you’re educated, prepared, and empowered to get in there.

Your Labour is More Important Than Your Strategic Mind

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Japanese businesses and professionals don’t evaluate your work based only on the quality, but on how much labour they think you’ve put in — this is especially the case when the work is something that they don’t specialize in.

Here’s how it works — let’s say you have a brilliant strategy that might improve their business’s growth or operations, and it seems they’re willing to move forward with your strategy. Sounds pretty good, right? Not quite.

The next thing that they might ask you is, “How will this be executed?” You tell them about your highly tactical execution and how it relates to the strategy. The next part may confuse you, but I swear it’s true.

You will get response similar to “I’ll only pay you for the execution.” Yes, you read that correctly. They are not willing to pay for your strategies or anything high-level. Unless, of course, it’s a strategy based on a lot of research or your job requires certain special certifications, such as a lawyer or a notary.

My point here is that they appreciate your labour, not your expertise. You have to show that you’ve put in the effort with your proposal by visiting their office, putting together reports, research, and so on. They won’t be impressed by what a smarty you are – you’ve got to show them.

Let’s take Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising management for example. They are going to demand several long and robust reports for the formality of the business transaction This can be frustrating because of the amount of time you’ll spend on generating the reports, only for it not to be the main selling point. Even if this expectation isn’t mentioned, it’s something that is common practice in their business community.

In case you’re unaware of this cultural tidbit, Japanese business people don’t usually say what they think.

Your customers will be super demanding

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More than ever, the demands of Japanese customers are increasing when it comes to both quality of customer service and products themselves. Although the reasons may vary, one of the biggest contributing factors is an excess of supply. Japanese customers are entitled to be picky because they have a ton of options to choose from.

An indicator that illustrates the difference between the Japanese and English speaking markets, is the the difference between conversion rates in digital marketing in their respective regions. In one of my own projects which I worked on to promote a local doctor in Canada, I’ve achieved a conversion rate of 16.1% — see more details here – and I have surpassed the conversion rate at 20% on another project for a lawyer.

Now in contrast, the average conversion rate in the Japanese market is around 1 – 3% or less (depending on which industry, business model, and/or competitors). According to WordStream, a 5 –10% conversion rate is the norm in English speaking digital markets, but the discrepancy is quite large.On the plus side, it’s good to know that I am doing a better job than average.

Along with an excess supply of options, in Japan you are expected to do whatever it takes if you’re a service provider. It doesn’t concern them how much effort is involved. If you don’t go to the ends of the earth, you’ll be sure to wind up on the receiving end of endless calls and e-mails. I’ve even heard of a North American company that fired a japanese company – a client of theirs – because they were way too demanding. How crazy is that?

Hard to find a good partner to guide you through

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With the cultural and language barrier resting between the English and Japanese markets, you might want to find the right partner to navigate you through effectively and efficiently. But that’s another major issue: finding that Japanese navigator is going to be hard. It’s going to be like looking for a diamond in the rough.

Japanese professionals don’t usually share their portfolios online, and even if they do, you’ll have a hell of a time trying to find them. Unlike in North America, where we use social platforms to network and grow our reputations, Japan does it a little differently. What you likely do not know is that there are two Japanese HR giants that dominate their job market. If a Japanese professional wants to their career path, generally the first thing they do is meet with a consultant from one of these HR giants. The same applies the Japanese businesses looking to hire new talent, they will likely go to the HR giants first. Therefore, sharing portfolios online is kind of pointless in Japan. Networking services like LinkedIn don’t have the same power that they do here.

According to VentureBeat, only 1% of the Japanese population have a LinkedIn account. While there are other popular alternatives to LinkedIn in Japan such as Wantedly, Facebook (some of them utilize Facebook to network with professionals rather than using it as a personal account), they don’t usually promote themselves online effectively enough that you’ll be able to find them.

Therefore, you’re going to need to go through the middleman to find the person you are really looking for. It’s going to make finding the right person hard – not impossible, mind you – but you’ll need to be clever.

[Side note: the Japanese job market is gradually evolving into the individual vs. company basis without the HR agency in between. However, it’s going to take a while before it completely changes.]

Wrap it Up

Hopefully, these roadblocks haven’t completely turned you off from exploring the Japanese Market. Yes, it’s going to hard, and it’s nothing like the market you know here in North America. It’s going to be tough to break in, but you can do it.

And in my opinion, it’s going to be worth it. I mean, think about it, Japan has one of the most dedicated and committed work philosophies worldwide, and a top-notch quality of work that in the end might just propel you to the next level.


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