Dave, I’m interested in proposing a partnership arrangement with a Japanese firm but don’t really know how to go about it. What kind of things should I make sure are included in my letter? Is a letter the best way to contact the firm? Etc., etc. I feel a bit like I’m up a creek without a paddle. Can you help me out?
Fascinating question! I asked my colleague Allen Williams for his advice on this subject: he lived in Japan for years and has worked with Japanese firms on various business deals. Here’s what he had to suggest…
If you have the name/address of the direct contact person,
your chances of success are likely higher with a letter.
The Japanese do a lot of business via mail, and rely heavily
on letters, paperwork, and formality. Do your best to send
it directly to the appropriate person.
Here’s where a phone call might be the best starting point.
Most Japanese companies employ secretaries and front desk
workers who can speak English, and if you contact them and
explain who you are and why you are calling, then ask them
for the name and contact information of the best person for
directing your inquiries, you have a good chance of getting
While English language classes are now a part of the everyday
curriculum from elementary school and onwards, most students
look at these classes much the same as Latin was once viewed.
That is, it’s schoolwork, not helpful for their everyday lives,
and there are just too many other things taking up their time
Also, most of the people in business today in Japan were not
subjected to steady English language classes during their
elementary school days. They have however often been forced to
attain certain levels on standardized English language skills
tests such as TOEIC and TOEFL in order to gain positions,
admittance into universities in Japan and abroad, and to be
considered for advancement within their organizations.
That means chances are good that anyone in this position has
some fairly strong skills at understanding English, especially
within the given context, and more especially when it is
delivered in writing.
Written language is still much easier to comprehend and the
stress factor greatly reduced. Oral communication brings with
it a various assortment of added influences, which also act as
deterrents to understanding for those less skilled, ie body
language, intonation, accenting, and pace. These factors greatly
increase the possibilities for not understanding, for feeling a
fear of not understanding, and the worse case scenario of
misunderstanding, and therefore looking foolish.
Delivering your proposal in writing will also give the recipient
the leisure of working through it if necessary or even seeking
outside help for understanding. This is not going to happen in a
phone conversation where you run the risk of not only having
miscommunications but also of having your offer rejected as the
easiest way to end what might be an uncomfortable situation.
That said, here are a few tips for submitting your proposal:
- A4 size on your letterhead (unfolded),
- include your letter of introduction, an outline of your proposal,
and a ‘resume’ for your business
- mark the outside of the envelope with “business proposal enclosed”
or “US business partnership proposal enclosed” (this part only in
red ink, carefully hand written, and placed below their address)
should get it opened, and likely a fairly quick response time
depending on the above mentioned ‘language factor.’
I would include return contact email address, phone, and snail mail
and the usual encouragement to reply to you in whichever manner is
most convenient for them.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to make the language easier to understand,
but I would be as straightforward with what you hope to work out with
them as possible.
Avoid using long introductory dependent clauses, or conditional
statements when possible.
Send it registered mail with a return receipt. Nothing says I’m serious
in Japanese correspondence like needing a signature.
This not only makes you and your proposal look more important,
it makes the recipient look and feel more important.
Follow up with a “did you get my proposal?” if you don’t hear from
them for 2 weeks. (Remember that with the turn-around time for just
the mail alone, it could take up to 10 days for a reply to reach
you via mail.)
Don’t give up too easily should you receive a negative response.
Not only in Japan, but Korea and other Asian countries as well,
the practice of “saying No” is a part of the culture. Sometimes
it is just a test to see how serious you are in your request or
to buy some thinking time. The general rule is “less than 3 times
‘no’ equals ‘maybe.’
Follow up with a “I really believe our companies can benefit each
other” letter and ask for specific reasons why your offer was rejected.
Ask if there are things they need clarified or changed in order to make
your proposal more acceptable.
If your offer is rejected a third time, it’s time to move on.
Above all, represent yourself and your business honestly and professionally.