9 Tips on How to Network at Japanese Trade Shows

Photo by Scott used under a Creative Commons License.

Unless you’re already resident in Japan, the costs of an air ticket and accommodation to attend a trade show can be significant – not to mention the valuable time taken from your schedule. Therefore, it’s important to make the most of your time. Given that you won’t have the luxury of a couple of days to learn from your mistakes, we profer the following tips to help you get the most out of a trade show.

1. Get business cards printed

This is an obvious one, but there are a few important considerations when designing and printing your cards. As is so often repeated, Japanese companies are looking for companies with whom they can build a long term relationship. First, go to the effort of getting a katakana version of your own name and your company name printed on your card. Second, get a Japanese contact address printed on your cards – whether it’s just a virtual office or the address of a company you are partnering with, the fact that you have a Japanese address will show you have a commitment to Japan. An English card not adapted to Japan just shows that you’re not really committed. If you have a Japanese card you might also consider handing contacts your usual business card as well. This shows that you might have scale – another checkbox of Japanese companies.

2. Get MORE business cards printed!

If you go hell for leather with your networking, you might go through 100 business cards a day. There have been more than a few times when I’ve met visiting businessmen who ran out of cards because they didn’t anticipate the number that they would need. The cost of printing 1,000 cards isn’t much more than printing 100 – so take more than you think you’ll need.

3. Take a Japanese assistant with you

Japanese companies won’t expect you to speak Japanese, but they’ll find it hugely reassuring if you show that you have Japanese speaking staff with whom they can communicate. If you don’t have your own staff, use your contacts in Japan to find someone to go with you. Most international people (especially in Tokyo) will know at least one freelance interpreter or freelancer who can accompany you. Rates will vary from about $US20 to $100 per hour depending on professionalism. Make these arrangements early and if possible, print cards for your assistant too.

4. Bring Japanese materials with you

You don’t need to translate everything, but a translated, well designed print out of one or two pages will go a long way. When you get to Japan, look for a stationery shop (often a convenience store will do) and buy about 100 “clear covers” to insert your materials into. Loose papers don’t look professional and they’ll get crumpled and thrown away.

5. Exhibit

You don’t need a big booth, but if you have any kind of booth, other booth holders (and more importantly) visitors will be willing to talk to you. It’s not 100% required though. It’s still possible to make good connections without exhibiting.

6. Introduce your company and your product or service – don’t push to close deals

Japanese companies are famously risk averse. Quite often you will have to go through strict vetting even if you wish to purchase a product or service and you’re willing to pay up front. This isn’t unusual – things take time in Japan. Given the number of people at a trade show, your mission should be to make a good impression and collect information and contacts.

7. Make appointments to meet after the trade show

As mentioned in point 6, deals rarely happen at the trade show itself – they happen afterwards. This is where your assistant comes in – line the meetings up and knock them down. This means that you should plan to be in the general vicinity of the show for a few days following so you can conduct the follow-up meetings.

8. Don’t meet everyone

Although in the west, chance one off meetings can have long term implications in terms of business and referrals, this is rarely the case in Japan. Larger Japanese companies have enormous sales departments. The junior sales people will meet absolutely anyone, no matter how divergent your business is from theirs. If there is the potential to do business, make a meeting, otherwise politely refuse – just ask them to send through something in the post.

9. Look for a cultural fit

As in “business culture”. Doing business in Japan is not just about knowing the language. There are cultural pitfalls by the dozen. Unless there are compelling reasons to do so, avoid the super traditional companies where no one speaks English. The reason no one speaks English is because they haven’t bothered obtaining the human resources to deal with non-Japanese clients. Companies with an international orientation will be much easier to deal with and to build a long term relationship with. Although there may be opportunities, you probably don’t want to be the Japanese company’s first ever foreign client or supplier.

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