What Does “Marketing” Mean In Japan?

Once upon a time in a previous life, I worked for a prestigious Japanese management consulting firm that was trying to make headway in the U.S. market. The company was originally affiliated with Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (通産省) but eventually became a for-profit entity in the early 1980s. As lean-manufacturing concepts spread to other countries in the 80s and 90s, our company started branching out as well, with the goal of becoming a “global player.”

The company had a great product, a “better mousetrap” if you will. But it wasn’t nearly enough to get the world to beat a path to our door. In the end, we would prove to be a victim of our success in Japan.

For starters, our company had no incentive to actively market and sell its services in Japan since its history and former affiliation with the Japanese government served as a badge of prestige that almost ensured clients would beat a path to our door. Would-be Japanese clients would actually come to the company, bow their heads and humbly ask for help. A wonderful situation to be in. If you’re a prestigious, well-known entity in Japan.

Unfortunately, this same company had zero name recognition abroad much less prestige. It didn’t help that it never once felt the need to establish a marketing culture to maintain a sustainable client base; it also didn’t help that the company didn’t grasp what it meant to be “global.” But perhaps the bigger problem was that no one seemed to understand what the concept of “marketing” meant.

On the positive side, we managed to snag some high profile clients early on, clients that kept us busy, although not nearly enough to sustain us long-term. So one fateful day, my Japanese boss marched into the morning meeting and announced that we were going to “spend the day marketing.”

It’s worth mentioning here that marketing has never been my area of expertise, and at best, I know just enough to be dangerous. But even to me, something sounded a bit off about “spending the day marketing.” My notion of marketing conjured up images of research, strategy, and planning, although admittedly, I was fuzzy on the details and execution. And yet, I knew intuitively that marketing wasn’t a thing you just randomly decide to do on a given day.

Still, I naively entertained the possibility that my Japanese colleagues were wiser than me and had some magical, counter-intuitive Zen marketing ideas up their sleeves. This thinking only served to set me up for a big letdown. For when my Japanese boss told us what was in store for us that day, I could almost hear the writing getting etched on the proverbial wall.

I eventually left that company for a better career opportunity long before that ship started sinking. Amazingly the company hung on for more than ten years before finally pulling the plug. What’s unfortunate is that, even with a great product, the company was unable to adapt to the new reality, very disappointing since there was so much potential. Management had no clue how to scale.

Below is the exchange that happened that fateful day, along with my (admittedly imperfect) analysis. I welcome feedback from any marketing experts out there on how best to “fill in the cross-cultural blanks” below the linguistic surface.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019


Tsukimi Dango and the Impending Apocalypse

Hanami_Dango.jpgGather round boys and girls for today’s Japanese culture lesson. It is September 13th in Japan today, which means this evening is the perfect time for “tsukimi” or “autumn moon viewing,” the night we express gratitude to the gods for a good harvest.

Per Japanese custom, we are required to eat tsukimi dango (round rice dumplings) to enhance our mandatory autumn moon-viewing pleasure. But alas, my wife and I forgot to pick them up at the supermarket when we were in town earlier today. As a result of our carelessness, I was told by a very unreliable source that the earth will stop rotating on its axis, the moon will fall out of orbit, the sun won’t rise tomorrow, and we’ll all be sucked into a black hole. Our apologies to the rest of humanity for the impending apocalypse. We’re just too tired to go back into town to get those damn rice dumplings.

For more information on this ancient custom, check out this link. Before it’s too late. 😉

Japan Needs to Adapt or Die

I lived in Japan during its economic heyday—from the late 1970s through most of the 1980s. Back then, the world stood in awe of Japan’s “economic miracle,” and I personally benefitted from it; I was in just the right place at just the right time, a stroke of good fortune that had a profound impact on my professional career.

Japan’s claim to fame, of course, was making high-quality, reliable hardware. Japanese  companies were so good at it that, from the late 1980s, the world started emulating the Japanese version of Total Quality Management (learned originally from Edwards Deming) and “lean manufacturing,” a method of production pioneered by Toyota. I worked directly in that field helping American companies and Japanese overseas subsidiaries implement what was considered by many to be “the Japanese way.” These were heady times and Japan was standing tall on the world stage.

But something happened in the 1990s. While Japan continued doing business as usual, the internet exploded, sending the market in directions that few people could foresee. It didn’t help that Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early nineties, sending shockwaves through Japan and the rest of the world.

Even with these seismic, market-shifting developments, too many Japanese companies stayed the course. Sadly, the numbers tell the story today: consider that in 1989, the Nikkei Index’s average closing price was 34,050. In contrast, the average in 2019 is 21,183. A disaster.

A successful and reputable colleague of mine in the business-consulting field has been trying to help his Japanese clients adapt to the changing business landscape for the past 30 years. He laments that it’s been hard not only to get them out of their risk-averse mindset, but also that they have difficulty grasping certain concepts, specifically, that data is the new commodity, and how the new game is about scaling profits accordingly. His struggle continues today.

The challenge then is getting Japanese companies to change their modus operandi, easier said than done. Specifically, it’s about convincing them that not changing is the riskiest of all propositions.

It is important to point out here that Japan’s misplaced fear is based more on fear of failing as an individual—the potential individual loss of face that comes with an individual boldly taking risks—than the failure of the group as a whole. Indeed, in Japan, it is much safer to dilute responsibility by opting for group consensus in defining problems and making “safe,” conservative decisions.

Sadly, the consequences of group failure are much more dire than an individual losing face. But alas, such is the power of cultural values in driving our behavior, even when it’s the irrational thing to do.

Please don’t misconstrue this post as me “bashing Japan.” On the contrary, I love and appreciate everything Japan has done for me over the last four decades and truly want to help. But the cold, hard truth is that it’s beyond the ability of any consultant to force change with a client; the client must choose to be brave, take responsibility, and help itself. I’m pulling for Japanese companies to do the right thing. Time will tell if they have the courage and the will.

Here’s my breakdown of a typical interaction that my colleague has with his Japanese clients. Constructive feedback is welcome.


When “Japanese English” Misses the Mark

When I first arrived in Japan years ago, Japan was a big mystery to me in every sense of the word. I had a limited understanding of both the Japanese language and my host culture, including how the Japanese misused my native tongue.

While talking to a Japanese acquaintance over a beer one evening, he asked, “Do you have my car?”

For a brief moment, part of me thought he was accusing me of stealing his car, and all of me was thoroughly confused.

It took a while for me to figure it out, but I eventually learned that—thanks to Japan’s misuse of English in its TV commercials—he was incorrectly using the possessive word “my” to mean “your own.”

Just imagine if he instead asked, “Did you spend time with my wife last evening?” That would’ve been an interesting exchange. 🙂

Here’s my breakdown of our misunderstanding.

My Car.jpg


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

How Words Can Mask Our Good Intentions

One of my most memorable experiences in a Japanese-run factory happened several months after I arrived in the Deep South from Kanagawa Japan some 32 years ago. The plant was brand-spanking new, thanks to the multi-million dollar investment the Japanese parent company made to gain a foothold into the U.S. automotive market.

Walking into the plant one morning, our Japanese Manufacturing Engineer (“Tanaka-san”) approached me in a tizzy. He said he just received a complaint from the customer that we had shipped a defective part, and that they expected us to identify the root cause and issue a corrective action report.

Tanaka-san grabbed my sleeve and dragged me out to the assembly line where the part in question was made. He wanted me to interpret.

It’s worth mentioning that Tanaka had worked over 30 years in the trenches of a noisy stamping plant, which means he was hard of hearing and consequently yelled everything he said. I knew I had to tread carefully in facilitating the interaction that was about to happen.

As we approached the line operator, Tanaka-san barked, “Tim-san, tell her the customer found a defect, and ask if she’s ever noticed any weak, non-conforming welds?”

I interpreted.

“I only make quality parts,” said the operator. “That defect didn’t come from me!”

I interpreted.

Mr. Tanaka said, “She seems like she’s afraid of something.”

I agreed but didn’t mention that his loud demeanor might have something to do with it. Then I added, “She thinks you’re blaming her.”

Well, this took Mr. Tanaka by surprise. He turned to me and yelled, “I would never blame her. If anyone is to blame it’s me because my responsibility is to make sure our operators have stable processes that always make good parts.”

Now imagine the look on the operator’s face after I interpreted, as the poor lady wondered why Tanaka-san was screaming this kind of message: the incongruence of his words and demeanor must’ve blown her mind.

Truth is Tanaka-san’s thought process was a revelation to me too, so I was as stunned as the operator. But as my experience and insights into Japanese management grew deeper over the years, I came to realize that this thought-process permeates Japanese manufacturing culture in general, certainly in the elite Japanese companies.

Here’s my breakdown of how a simple verbal exchange can mask good intentions and create undue fear.

The Defect.jpg

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

Humility in a Culture That Rewards Tooting Your Own Horn


I recently read an insightful article titled When Humility Hinders Career Progress. The article featured the struggle of an Australian man of Asian heritage to reconcile his value on humility with career ambitions in a culture that exalts self-promotion. (For the record, the value on self-promotion applies as much, if not more, to American culture.) The story struck a chord and underscored the power of cultural values in influencing what we perceive as “good.” And it reminded me of a personal experience I had years ago that inspired a shift in my own values.

It was 1978. I was a clueless 20-year-old kid living the good life in Yamato Japan, just fifty minutes south of Tokyo as the train flies. I knew just enough Japanese at the time to be dangerous; I could order a beer, buy a train ticket, and negotiate that elusive phone number from a pretty girl. Beyond that, I was lost.

One evening, while on a mission to discover signs of nightlife in our sleepy little town, my buddy Dave and I stumbled into a drinking establishment called Bonanza. About the size of a walk-in closet, Bonanza was run by Taro, a tall, lanky man with a scraggly beard and disheveled hair, someone you’d expect to see in a biker bar. Sitting across the bar was a bearded Japanese man with long wavy hair and a gentle demeanor. Taro introduced him as “Keni.”

With our limited Japanese, their broken English, some animated gesturing, and a few beers for good measure, we somehow made a connection. Our conversation drifted to the topic of music. That’s when we discovered a shared passion for the blues.

When I mentioned that my friend Dave played harmonica and had a few harps in his back pocket, Taro pulled out a guitar from behind the bar and handed it to Keni.

As Keni tuned the guitar, I naively asked if he knew how to play the blues.

“I’m still learning,” he answered softly.

Taking his words at face value, I remember worrying that the poor guy might embarrass himself trying to keep up with my talented harmonica-tooting friend.

I’ll never forget what happened next. When Keni started playing, my worries were immediately replaced with awe. His power, technique and musical soul blew me away.

Viewing the situation through my young American eyes, Keni’s humility seemed way out of whack with his talent level. This gifted artist had just downplayed his ability and then let his performance do the talking. It was an aha moment, both humbling and cool beyond words.

And I remember wondering: If this wonderfully gifted artist is being humble, then what about me?

With that thought came a subtle but powerful shift in my worldview. It was the first time in my life I had entertained the notion that humility could be a good thing, a change in perception that inspired me to reflect, evolve and grow.

That humble blues musician eventually became a dear friend, my mentor, big brother, Japanese language teacher, and guitar instructor. Forty years later, we are still close friends.

Thanks to Keni, my Japanese is much better now. My guitar playing is…good enough to be dangerous. 😉

I’ll close this with a quote on humility from my culturally astute, Japan-expert friend Richard Berger:

“Once you’ve been exposed to it, you realize how beautiful humility can be. But when it begins to set in and you find yourself growing ever more humble in your interactions with uninitiated Westerners, you realize how what you say gets perfunctorily taken at face value and often find yourself getting brushed aside. It can be a double-edged sword.

I couldn’t agree more.

Here’s my analysis of what was happening below the linguistic (and musical) surface.


Below is a clip of us jamming together four decades later. Dave is on harmonica, Keni on lead (on the left), Tatsumi also on lead (in the back), Hatchan on slide, and Tim on rhythm. Enjoy.


When Japanese & American Decision-Making Styles Collide


When it comes to managing and preventing friction in the mixed Japanese-American workplace, one of the toughest nuts to crack is reconciling the two cultures’ starkly different approaches to decision-making. Consider what happens on a human level when Japanese and American decision-making styles collide.

American Gripes About Japanese Decision-Making

In my cross-cultural seminars, I like to kick off sessions with small group activities, at which time I ask each group to collectively make a list of what they enjoy about working with the other side and also what drives them crazy. (On both sides of the cultural divide, the “drives-them-crazy” comments nearly always outnumber the “enjoy” comments, a telling glimpse into human nature.) The comments are as interesting as they are enlightening. Common American gripes include:

“It takes forever for Japanese to make decisions.”

“Japanese want too much data—’analysis paralysis.'”

“Japanese have ‘secret meetings’ that exclude Americans.”

“We (Americans) go to meetings to debate an issue to make the best possible decision, but the Japanese always make decisions prior to the meeting.”

“Japanese don’t involve Americans in the decision-making process.”

“Japanese don’t like to take risks.”

Japanese Have Plenty of Gripes

On the other side of the cultural divide, consider what Japanese managers say about Americans:

“Take action without understanding the problem.

“Don’t gather enough data and don’t conduct root-cause analysis.

“Don’t practice plan-do-check-adjust.”

“Aren’t data-driven and instead prefer to act on their feelings.”

“Don’t take time to understand the current situation.”

“Take shortcuts through trial-error without proper follow-up, a risky approach that can create unintended consequences.”

“Are specialists, take action without consulting with other departments, and don’t try to view problems from various perspectives.”

“Take risks lightly then don’t accept responsibility when failures occur.”

As someone with one foot in each culture, my first observation is that both sides don’t always practice what they preach. I also happen to believe that there is some truth to what each side is saying. Stating the obvious, these gripes are based on perceptions heavily influenced by culture—the “truth” as each side sees it. It is open to debate on how accurate each side is in its assessment of the other side.

The intent of this article is not to take sides. Depending on the context, one could argue that in some situations, the “American way” (whatever that means) works, and other times the “Japanese way” works. (It’s worth noting here that former Japanese bosses used to swear up and down that they were just practicing their own version of the “Deming way”; Deming, of course, was an American.)

My thought has always been that if someone can figure out how to combine the disciplined Japanese cross-functional approach to defining problems with American efficiency and creativity, it would be a game-changer. Easier said than done, but a worthy aspiration to pursue.

Be that as it may, below is my analysis of the key disconnects at play below the linguistic surface when Japanese and my compatriots talk about “making a decision.” Unless these disconnects are understood by both sides, the twain will never meet.