One year ago this week the world looked on in shock as north eastern Japan was devastated by the fourth largest earthquake on record.  Japan’s industrial base, its production capacity and even its very economic status were compromised.  As the world’s third largest economy with an unrivalled commitment to research and development, Japan’s recovery was crucial not just for its own sake but for the sake of market economies everywhere.

Britain’s commercial relationship with Japan extends back over 150 years and during the past twelve months, with domestic production capacity weakened, Japan has welcomed British trade initiatives more than ever.  450 British companies currently have Japanese sites, with success stories across a range of industries notably including manufacturing, FMCG, Hi-Tec and service sectors.

What challenges can British companies expect in this market, and how can they prepare to meet them?

Exporting to a new country and communicating successfully with this new audience in their own language involves the deconstruction and reconstruction of a culture, not just a language.  Wolfestone’s website localisation projects, interpreting assignments and technical translations are undertaken with an integrated approach.  Our translators have a “global” view of the project, understanding how each inflection or nuance impacts on the overall message.  The truly effective translator wll be bicultural as well as bilingual, equipped to completely rebuild the client’s message for maximum credibility and goodwill with the target audience.

The amateur translator (or worse, the machine translator) would fail to appreciate, for example, that in the Japanese language the future tense doesn’t exist.  The present tense is used to describe future actions and when a Japanese native speaker says they are drinking coffee, they might be describing the action of the moment, something they do every day or something they plan to do in the future.  A skilled translator will recognise their meaning from the context, but the inexperienced will flounder.  We’ve heard too many “horror stories” from clients who tried to cut corners with Japanese partners and caused irreparable damage.

It’s important to understand the protocols of modesty and respect in any culture, and nowhere is that more true than in Japan.  Failing to take into account a person’s age or social status will immediately compromise any business relationship, and these errors can be glaring or subtle.  Changes to the structure of a language in translation can be “obligatory” or “non-obligatory”.  Obligatory changes occur because of the differences in grammatical structure between one language and another.  Non-obligatory changes can be less obvious.  They occur because of differences in culture and style.  People who take pride in their national culture might be deeply offended by a failure to recognise these non-obligatory changes, and Wolfestone clients agree that it simply isn’t worth the risk.

If the penalties for poor preparation are severe, the rewards for good work are excellent.  Outstanding opportunities exist for British exporters across many sectors, and Japan’s commitment to an eco-friendly future is opening many doors in the renewable energy industry.  Over the past year, Japan has begun a major restructuring of its energy mix, reforming the electricity sector and working towards a target of deriving 25% of all power from renewable sources.  Offshore wind, solar PV and biomass services are thriving, and there’s increasing demand for Smart-Grid and Smart metering technology from utility service providers.

A country that has 2% of the world’s population is responsible for a massive 20% of the world’s research and development spending, with an increasing emphasis on greener products.  Wolfestone’s commitment to eco-friendly trading brings us into constant contact with clients whose innovative, ethical approach makes them ideal contributors to these emerging markets, and frequent trade missions to Tokyo and Osaka have helped British exporters develop relationships that offer enormous long term benefits to both parties and both economies.

Rebuilding a client’s message in a new language can be challenging, but rebuilding a society in the face of natural disaster is a challenge that most of us will never have to face.  Japan’s social and economic reconstruction over the past year has taken patience, discipline and hard work.  The Japanese client will expect British trading partners to show the same qualities, and for those who do the opportunities are clear.  You simply need to approach this market fully prepared, with a localised service tailored to earn the respect and trust of your target audience.

That’s why clients come to Wolfestone.



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by Wolfestone Admin
  • Paul Chammings

    As someone who’s spent time a lot of time in Japan pre-Fukushima and visited since I acknowledge that your points on trade ops are fundamentally sound but I’d guard against the idea that the Japanese energy market (particularly renewable energy) is now a free for all. Some big names with deep pockets have been caught out. Merrill Lynch threw the kitchen sink at electricity trading in Japan then quit with their tails between their legs when they couldn’t make it pay. Caution is still advisable.

  • Paul

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that caution is advisable, not just in this target sector but in formulating any export strategy, but I’m sure you’ll agree that this market is unrecognisable from the one Merrill Lynch walked away from in 2009.

    Prior to March 2011, almost one third of Japan’s energy was nuclear. If you’ve been there over the past year you can hardly have missed the growing popular hostility towards nuclear power. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that view, the practical upshot of last year’s tragedy is that 49 out of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors have now been taken offline for safety checks and upgrades, and the five that remain active are scheduled to close for maintenance between now and the end of May. Japan has been hit by a serious power shortage. That’s not my opinion, it’s the Japanese government’s. That’s why they asked their citizens to reduce power consumption by 15% last year and why a similar request is expected again this year. They’ve also introduced tariffs guaranteeing that utility companies pay a premium rate for electricity from renewable sources, which is one of the reasons that solar, wind and biomass plants can expect to thrive.

    Should British renewable energy suppliers proceed with prudence? Yes, of course. Should they shy away from the opportunity to help shape a greener future for the world’s third largest economy? I don’t think so, but I’d be interested in other peoples’ views.

  • Adele Marinescu

    This is a good article and I like what you say about Japan. I was attending at an exhibition in Bucharest of pictures drawn by children giving a message of comfort to children of Japan after this great earthquake. I also think our balance of trade with Japan has become better in 2011 even after the earthquake and consequent social issues. The Romania government five year export plan makes mention of Japan as a place of significance for the ecological industries.

  • Hi Adele

    Thanks for your post. I’ve had first-hand experience of the generosity of Romanian people so I’m not at all surprised to hear about the kind gesture by the children of Bucharest. I’m sure this was appreciated in Japan. I agree with your comment about an improving balance of trade. The fact is that Japan has become more reliant on imports over the past twelve months and this has presented an opportunity for exporters in your country and mine as well as many others. Japan finished 2011 with its first trade deficit in over 30 years. The disaster of last March made that moroless inevitable, and ethical European exporters can benefit themselves and Japanese consumers alike.

  • Aaron McCabe

    If some good comes from the tragedy of Japan’s natural disaster then that’s positive but a terrible price to pay. Is it feasible for the country to survive energy wise without nuclear power?