Today is Japan Wal-Mart day but first we had to get there. Apparently we left right at the rush hour because we saw Tokyo’s infamous train station crowds. Our experience included the white-gloved train attendants who were prepared to shove the crowds into the trains so the doors can close. We arrived a little early so it seemed like we were in a little danger until our train showed up. When a train arrived, it was just like getting caught in a flood people who were clogging the escalators up to the exits. Our group had to hide behind a concrete pillar so we wouldn’t get washed away by crowds from arriving trains. Fortunately, the train we boarded wasn’t as crowded as some of the others that we saw and we were able to ride comfortably which is fine by me.

Our contact today was Mike Bratcher one of Wal-Mart’s high level executives in Japan. In December 2002, Wal-Mart bought a 37.7% share of Seiyu, Japan’s struggling number five retailer and is in the process of getting their operations up to Wal-Mart standards. The company will still be called Seiyu for the time being and Wal-Mart won’t extend their brand unless they can function with the Wal-Mart quality and price. Seiyu can’t simply lower prices in the same manner Wal-Mart currently does since it does not have a cost structure to support it. Seiyu still has a brand equity of trust as well and Wal-Mart believes that it can leverage that brand name until it can make the name change to Wal-Mart. Seiyu’s market problems in combination with Seiyu’s president realizing a need to change the direction of his company greatly aided Wal-Mart’s efforts in Japan.

Mike talked a lot about differences in culture that makes doing business difficult. To emphasize the point, he asked what he had done in our meeting that would be considered mistakes in a meeting with Japanese people. Some of the examples he cited were, no detailed meeting agenda, no biographies of the people at the meeting, and a seating arrangement that does not put the people who are in charge in their proper places.

Japanese businesspeople hate to be surprised in a meeting and want to understand what is going on beforehand. Giving them time to read all the relevant information before meeting produces wonders in results. No new information should be brought to a meeting. There is a term called nemowashi that requires everyone to be in agreement on what to be done before the meeting is even held.

Meetings must also always start and end on time and everybody should be given the opportunity to talk. Finally, it must be determined who is the owner of a particular task and when will the task will be done.

This attention to detail is also seen in planning. Not only is planning is a high priority to the Japanese business system but process planning is huge. Unlike in American where we can abstract certain parts of a plan out since we know conditions will change, the Japanese have to understand the whole plan and all the details before they can commit to it. This takes more time but the Japanese more patient, longer term view of business.

The amount of indirect communication used by Japanese businesspeople is very high especially since hard to explicitly say ‘no’. If an American encounters a problem in a meeting, he will come out and express it verbally. However in Japan, one might use a sigh or where they are looking even though they are agreeing with a course of action verbally.

The Japanese are very risk adverse since public failure and the attendant humiliation and loss of face is very bad. Start up experience is not liked here since failure in those businesses is common. No adrenaline junkies need apply. This attitude makes it difficult for American retailers since not everything promoted works. Instead, risk shouldering is a more common tactic used. The risk of failure is shared among many people which is a more acceptable outcome to a new business venture.

Hierarchy is very important. The official lead may not have real decision making power. It is hard to give a differing opinion especially to a superior. You are also not allowed to bypass your superior. Mike recounted a time where they asked one Japanese manager to talk to another manager to get a particular task done. Since the second manager was not in the first managers chain of command, he could not simply have a conversation and complete the task. Rather, he had to spend considerable time working his way around with his chain of command where he could get his message to the appropriate person.

Finally, Mike emphasized the importance of translators. He gave us a though experiment to show the importance of translators. Try to translate the ideas given by one person in the room, restate what they say, to someone else in your own language. If your translators is translating 80% of that ideas, that is good, but a 30% translation rate is bad. To avoid these kinds of problems, give your translators the notes to the meeting just like they were another business attendee. This lets the translator know what they’re talking about when they are translating.

The evening activity is a visit to the famed Kodo drum troupe. We arrived a few hours early to the concert hall since Dr. Stapp had arranged for us to see Kodo warm up and practice some before the evenings concert. Jun Akemoto, manager of North America tours, was our guide at the practice very impressive and very loud.

After the practice we talked with one of the members of the troupe who grew up in Missouri just like Kelli did. He talked about how he joined Kodo. He was trained as a jazz musician but went to the tryouts on the small island off the western coast of Japan where Kodo is based. At the tryouts, they look for general aptitude and spirit. Once you are accepted, you stay on the island for a two year apprenticeship. During that time you run several miles a day, plant rice and do other farm work and also practice music. In addition to drums, you also learn how to play the flute and to sing. After you complete the apprenticeship, there is a one year probationary period where you go on the road and play with the group. If you pass this step, then you are in the group for as long as you want.

The Kodo members are in excellent shape (as many of the ladies in our group noticed) and look like male models. During several of the drum sessions the drummers are wearing nothing but a loincloth. This prompted me to suggest that they drop the drumming and make a Kodo home workout video. I’m sure they could clean up.

Tomorrow, free time in Tokyo!