Comparing and Contrasting Chinese and Japanese Business Dealings

As the economies of both nations continue playing important roles in the Asia in the macroeconomic landscape in the years ahead, it would be foolhardy for us (or US, however your geopolitical inclination may be) to prognosticate Western ways and ignore the oft-subtler ways in which things get done in both societies.

I spent the past day in Tokyo and today in Guangzhou. Combining prior first- and second-hand knowledge/experiences of these 2 nations, I have arrived at some humble hypotheses in the similarities and differences by which the Chinese and Japanese go about conducting business.

Exceptions aside*, the Chinese and Japanese are alike in the sense that they…

  1. Don’t Say What They Really Mean
    You really have to become a master at reading between the lines when dealing with the Chinese and Japanese. Even at that, these 2 cultures do it a bit differently. Personally, I prefer the Japanese way of hemming-and-hawing – the worse you’ll get is either hesitation or radio silence. With the Chinese, there’s no telling what the real deal is, even when you’re sitting across the table from them. No wonder I don’t see that many Japanese (vs Chinese) in the World Poker Series!
  2. Work Hard First, Play Harder After
    Both nations know how to enjoy their food. On both nights, my tummy was well taken care of – an excellent night of fine Kyoto cuisine was followed by tasty Guangdong food. Work is a formality – the real ‘work’ begins after 6pm, at the dinner table. I was glad we were let off easy on both nights – I would not have been able to write this soberly under normal circumstances.
  3. (are) Fiercely Nationalistic and Territorial
    The Japanese are quietly so, while the Chinese bear no qualms in boasting about their country, or indirectly belittling yours. Don’t ever think of doing business in either country unless you have a strong local partner, ideally with Yakuza ties in Japan, or government ties in China. You won’t want to get into their wrong books – the Japanese and Chinese have proven themselves to be extremely creative in the torture chamber throughout history, and history often repeats itself, albeit in a different form 😉

Exceptions aside, the Chinese and Japanese differ in their…

  1. Sense of Time
    It is generally a bad thing to be late in Japan. Being on time is expected, and being early despite being the visitor is what people usually do to leave an impression. For the Chinese…let’s just say time is like a galloping horse carrying a bulls-eye – it’s a moving target!
  2. Degree of Formality
    If you haven’t been to Japan, you should. The nation and its people are as fastidiously polite, meticulous, hierarchical and formal as it can get. Now now, I’m not saying the Chinese don’t have manners. The Japanese are a bit tough to match, much less top – I was highly impressed by an executive who sent us to the glass lift and bowed deeply until we were several floors down.
  3. Value of relationships
    You thought your work was done after you found for yourself an excellent local partner in China and have plenty of bonding over food and drinks. Do your shareholders and yourself a big favour and continue to keep a close watch on them! A classic – year-on-year unprofitable or break-even joint ventures/companies could simply be vehicles for subcontract work to related entities at higher margins. This is worlds apart from Japan – it is a really hard market to break into, but once you’ve inked a deal with a Japanese partner, you can most certainly rely on them to take care of the Japan market.

Time to crash.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.