Clubhouse: Solving Pain-Points for Foreign Execs in Tokyo

Clubhouse: Solving Pain-Points for Foreign Execs in Tokyo

What if you didn’t have to struggle with your Japanese mail? 

What if Japanese application forms weren’t such a nightmare to complete? 

What if there was a simpler way to move knowledgeably through Japan’s business landscape? 

On June 7, our director David Gallagher and CEO Fuminori Gunji talked with Jason Ball, owner and community leader of Business in Japan (BIJ) LinkedIn group, on how TokyoMate is changing how foreign executives do business in Japan. 

You can listen to a recording of the Clubhouse event here.

What follows are the incisive and invaluable insights to tuck away for anyone working or doing business here. 

Note: Edited for clarity and brevity. 

On the problem of Japanese physical mail + a solution

Fuminori Gunji (Chief Executive Officer): One of the problems with physical mail, probably in any country where you don’t understand the language is—if you get physical mail these days, it probably means something. It could be important, but when you don’t understand the language, you don’t even know if it requires some action on your behalf—if there’s a deadline involved, etc., and it can be stressful and concerning. 

What TokyoMate’s Mail service offers is—we’ll tell you if there’s anything to worry about or not. 

There are some [Japan-based] virtual mail services out there but at the end of the day, you still have to do something about it if the mail requires action. TokyoMate, combining virtual assistance with this mail service can take care of that action for you. It completes the customer experience—so if you don’t want to go to your office physically or you can’t access your home because you are living for an extended period somewhere else—which is not unusual in these times—we’ll take care of it. 

On figuring out how to work around bureaucracy in Japan

Jason Ball (Business in Japan): What would you say are the most common pain points that you’re seeing come up? 

Fuminori: There are a lot of specific examples that we can mention later on, but to set the overall context: what makes it difficult to do business in Japan for Westerners, in particular, is that Japan is such a homogenous society, so there are a lot of things that people expect you to know. There is a lot that happens here based on the assumption that the other party knows what’s going on, which as a Westerner you don’t know. 

What makes it even more difficult is that it’s not only based on these assumptions but also Japan has omote and ura. Maybe you’ve heard this expression before, tatemae to honne, which is the difference between what’s on the front, the façade, and what is the real discussion that’s happening. 

For example, if you go to a municipality to try to do something. The first answer you might get is “You can’t do that,” or “No.” And then you think that that’s the end of the discussion. But often, there’s a workaround. And [employees] answer that way because that’s how it’s written in the manual or rulebook. 

But there’s usually some workaround that can be found. However, you won’t even know to ask that question to yourself and to think about workaround solutions if you don’t know this. 

So it’s not just about the language that makes things difficult. It’s about things inherent in this culture, even for Japanese people, that makes it hard to know what can actually be done here [versus] what the officials say. And there’s usually quite a discrepancy there. 

For example, I worked for many years at Softbank, and even within companies there is this thing that people say in a meeting in a public setting, [which is different from] what can be done in the background. And so you have to be able to distinguish, [and consider] what are they saying because they have to say that given the position or the office that they have, given the job that they have—and think about how to work around that. 

You need to know not only the language but a cultural API to access and utilize the tools that are available to you. 

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On the cultural advantages of a VA service that go beyond Japanese ability

David Gallagher (Director of Sales): There are virtual assistant services in other countries, probably at a lower price point than ours but [you need someone] who not only speaks Japanese but also understands the culture and the tone that’s necessary to deal with the legal affairs bureau or tax accounting offices. 

And it’s something that just [knowledge of] the Japanese language might not get you through. It’s also understanding how to communicate and how to navigate those waters.

Jason: It’s a different environment. You’ve got the standard things that a virtual assistant could do for you in any country, and then you’ve got the cultural ones, which are some of the reasons that these pain points exist in Japan. 

On addressing pain points for foreigners when you’re a native Japanese

Jason: Riho-san, you’re in marketing. How have you found it, joining in that role? And what sorts of things have you done to get the word out and make sure people know that TokyoMate exists? 

Riho Fukuda (Marketing Director): I was born and raised in Japan, so a lot of the things that foreigners struggle with are things that I didn’t think about and I just naturally did, such as paperwork and going through lots of processes to get anything done. 

Just to pay taxes, we get this paper notice, and we don’t know when it’s due or when it needs to be paid. Even for a Japanese person, there are a lot of things that are confusing. But I’m like, this is [normal daily occurrences for Japanese], so we [Japanese] just do it. 

Tackling these problems and the inconvenient things that exist in Japan, solving problems in a society that is very traditional and hard to make any changes, listening to our foreign customers, the kinds of problems they have, and finding solutions together has been the journey of TokyoMate marketing. And anytime we find solutions, it’s really satisfying. 

On Japanese-style decision-making and how to move beyond it

Hajime Koyanagi (Augmentation Bridge, CEO): The root of many of these pain points is, we Japanese hate to have someone to decide many things by him or herself. 

We spend a huge amount of time to create a façade that this is not decided by one person’s intention; this is decided by the air of everybody, shared by everybody on this team. So we always exhaust a lot of time to create みんなで決めた空気 and this will probably be a great pain point for foreign executives in Tokyo. 

A lot of people in this group are doing DX [digital transformation] in Tokyo, and you may have suffered from decisions [that take a long time]. Please don’t take that wrong that Japanese people hate digitization. 

Actually, we love new technologies, but what we hate is some one, some CIO, some CEO, who is so decisively leading the project—that’s what [Japanese] hate. 

Fuminori: Hajime-san pointed out an interesting topic on how the decision-making process in Japanese organizations is based on collectivism and collective-decision making. 

So when you want to get things done, especially in a B2B environment, such as selling software or convincing them to do DX using certain software, the important thing to know is that the stakeholders in the project are probably not just the people you meet in the meeting, but there’s a whole bunch of stakeholders who never show up in the meeting. 

When you work with customers, you have to be aware of that. It’s not enough to convince the people in the meeting room, but [you have to convince] the people beyond the room. The people who are in the meeting room, it’s quite likely they are supportive of your idea or they have already agreed with your basic idea, and they are the ones who have to champion that idea within the organization [to their higher ups]. 

So what I used to do when I was doing B2B sales is provide them with the kind of material that they need to convince other people in their organization. I would blandly ask, “How can I help you, so that you can help me help whoever is involved in the decision making in your organization?” Often this would involve helping the person create presentation material to convince the people in their organization that whatever you are selling is a good idea.

On the range of popular assistant tasks for executives

Jason: I didn’t realize that you guys do research in Japanese for foreign businesses, such as what grants are available for businesses from the government and general market research. Have you had much demand for that? 

David: That’s quite a big one. And even before people start a business, they want to scout the market so we’ve done competitor research, price research, seeing what they offer. 

As you mentioned, we help startups and smaller SMEs apply for different subsidies. We check first if they qualify for it, and second what documentation they need and help them out with the application process there. And I think if I’m remembering right, we helped someone get their business rent subsidy. 

Also, not only within Japan, we’ve also had one or two companies ask us to scout outside of Japan, too, which we can do because it’s a bilingual service. 

On what’s ahead, the future of the office, and designing for DX

Jason: You hinted at some things ahead. What should we look out for? 

David: We just launched our newest service, which is the TokyoMate Receptionist service. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re building out a suite of virtual services for people to pick and choose and use, when needed. So if you were starting a company from scratch, you could use all the services to get you up and running. Or if you are an established business, you might just want the VA service. 

Our goal is to change the image of what’s needed to do business in Japan. For a lot of people here, the office is still the hub that’s needed to be a successful business, and that’s the main thing that we’re trying to change. So startup groups are also quite interested because they see, “oh I might not have the cash for an office or I don’t even need an office. I just need an address—somewhere my mail can go to and it gets scanned for me.” 

We’re also eager with digitization and making things like application forms and those kinds of processes easier for foreigners, so we’re working on stuff for the future, to make those processes a lot easier. 

Fuminori: We’ve been a bit aggressive asking, “Who still needs an office?” But at the least, offices need to be remote-capable. Meaning, if you wanted to, it should be OK to not go to your office for a month or two and still be able to handle everything. 

We have all the technology in place to do it. And [COVID-19] has woken Japan up to realize all the tech that you need to work fully remotely and do everything remotely is already there. We just have to capture and seize it. 

TokyoMate is trying to express that in the form of a service and product and make it available not only for Japanese, but also for foreigners.  

Jason: Hopefully, presumably, in the next 6 to 24 months, vaccinations are out for anyone who wants them … People will start going back to the office. I know there’s a lot of organizations that are starting to make vaccinations available to their staff, with the idea of getting things back to normal. 

But also, I think it won’t go back completely. We might have this mixed model of working remotely for some of the time, and some of the time in the office. 

But for many small offices, it won’t make sense for them to go back. And some of the services you offer, while quite hands-on, opening mail and scanning it, it’s not necessarily something someone can handle by themselves, they need a service like yours. [TokyoMate] might be an option for some businesses to scale down post-COVID. And use services like yours to more effectively and cost-effectively get things done remotely. 

Check out the BIJ Clubhouse (@businessinJapan) for insightful conversations, hosted weekly on Monday at noon by Jason Ball and guests.  

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