Williams, Robert. Doing Business in Korea and Japan

| December 2, 2005

December 2005 Volume 1

Article 4.

Article Title

Doing Business in Korea and Japan


Robert Williams

Being based in Japan but a regular visitor to Korea, I have the pleasure of doing business in both these weird and wonderful countries.

When I was invited to relay my experiences, I had to think hard. I observed many synergies between the two countries, but also some significant differences. The major part of my business is conducted with Foreigners, but I am sometimes exposed to the idiosyncrasies of Korean and Japanese business life.

The essential swapping of business cards is of course different in both countries. In Japan, one must give and receive cards with both hands held out and the degree of bow, signifies the deepness of respect for the other person. I haven’t quite worked out yet, what angle I must use for which age group and degree of seniority, but my Japanese wife tells me I do not bow low enough to her !

When asked about the differences in business interaction between Japanese and Koreans, my personal experience tells me that Koreans have a more direct approach and a better command of English.

However certain similarities appear. It takes an eternity to conclude business in Japan after months or years of socializing, meetings about meetings and then finally a REAL meeting. In both countries, I have had to endure Sake or Soju drinking sessions and prove my worth in hard liquor drinking, before even the slightest hint of a business discussion appears. I have seen respectful businessmen in both countries reduced to a jibbering mess, sprawled over train platforms or pavements, oblivious to the fact that their long-suffering wives will have alot of washing and ironing to do to return them to respectability ! I have learned to keep my white shirt and pastel grey tie clean !

In Korea, I get the impression from businessmen that they want to get ahead and become as successful as possible. I am not so sure that is the case for the average ‘salaryman’ in Japan, who seems happy to accept his lot in life and read cartoon comics on the train for intellectual stimulation. Of course, one cannot generalize and there are many forward-thinking businessmen in Japan, but watch out if he starts sucking through his teeth – you know then it is a challenge for him to meet your demands. I have yet to experience the equivalent physical re-coil in Korea, but I am sure one exists !

In Japan, I use the subway to get to meetings much as everyone else. I was told that for a Foreigner in a suit to utilize this mode of transport in Seoul is considered strange. Having used the subway to get to appointments in Kangnam on my last visit, the feeling of being looked at as a circus act and having to deal with the early morning garlic aromas, has ensured that irrespective of interminable traffic jams, I will be using taxis in future !

Overall, Japan and Korea have their frustrations but it is also a privilege to experience both countries’ ways of doing business. As they fight with each other to be the best and Korea becomes Corea, you can be sure that Mr Koizumi will also sanction a change to Chapan !

Wherever I am, my line of business has one common thread. Whether I am working with Japanese, Koreans or Ex-pats, everyone has the same need of saving for retirement, protecting their families and making their money work harder. It just takes longer here !

Robert Williams
Managing Director
IFG Asia Limited


Category: Volume 1 Issue 3 December 2005