Shutterstock/Pajor Pawel

From robotics to toilets, Japan is renowned for its advanced technology. Entrepreneurs from around the world dream of joining the industry. Yet when it comes to IT, Japan has actually had relatively sluggish growth, while countries like the US forge ahead.

Now, a Japanese government initiative seeks to put IT front and center for economic growth. Among other things, this presents opportunities for foreign IT vendors to crack the Japanese market.

It won’t be easy.

As an IT professional with more than two decades managing in Japanese subsidiaries of U.S.-based companies, I’ve seen how hard Japan’s IT industry has been to penetrate. But we shouldn’t lose hope. Some things can be done!

A Hard Day’s Night

Back in the mid-1990s, I worked for Electronic Data Systems (EDS). My client at the time was a large Japanese bank. Our team was working hard to install EDS’s banking software for a client. This software was new to Japan, so no one had any experience of installing it. 

It took almost one year for them to sign the contract and begin using our software. During that lengthy negotiation period, the client asked us numerous questions: 
“What issues are solved by using this software?” 
“How does it work to solve those issues?”
“Who else is using the software?”
“Why did they select it?”
“How long did it take them to install it?”  

I had to relay those questions to my colleagues in U.S. to get the correct information and translate it into Japanese. This involved sending e-mails to America at midnight (Japan time) and responding to the client the next morning.

In most cases, the initial answers were not satisfactory. I often had to work for several nights in a row to get the “right” answer. 

The hardest part was explaining to my American colleagues why these concerns were important and why our answers were not clear enough. They were puzzled as to why a client would want such incredibly detailed information.

Eventually, we managed to satisfy the client, but not without some bad feelings from my irate colleagues abroad. It was a tough time. 

I had similar experiences every time I tried to introduce a new software package in Japan. Why do Japanese clients need so many details?

Japanese Standards: Beyond the Basics 

Recently, I spoke with a Japanese president of a U.S.-based IT company, and she confirmed similar experiences in Japan over the last decade.

“Our Japanese client’s requirements even for the ‘basic standard’ are extremely high compared to other markets,” she said. Even with near impossible tasks such as “zero data loss from databases” and “zero privacy leaks,” many Japanese companies still press for maximum quality. 

One of the keys to her success is simply being patient. 

There is a positive outcome to the intense attention to detail. When I lived in U.S., I used to joke that half of all ATMs were out of service at any given time. In Japan, I always expect a 100% operation rate. Many Japanese ATMs also have features that foreign machines lack, such as the ability recycle bills—a function that made a U.S. engineer friend of mine gasp, “That’s crazy!” (In a good way!)

So all that frustration in the installation of processes and programs tends to come with a clear benefit to the user on the other end.

Akinai: A Business Keyword and So Much More 

The Japanese word akinai means “business, trade, and commerce.” It’s also a homophone for “don’t give up.” In Japan, seasoned businessmen will often say that they should be patient because a situation is akinai.

When doing business in Japan, whether in IT or any other industry, it’s important to remember that Japanese service and quality standards are extremely high. It will help to be patient with your clients. If they ask for unbelievable amounts of information before (and even after) making a contract, the best thing you can do is cooperate. This will help you forge long and fruitful relationships, and grow a little along the way. 

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