Nineteenth Amendment Designer Rebecca Morter, half of the British brand Rein London, lays down five tips for entering a new market based on her experience abroad in Tokyo, Japan. Read on to see what it takes to break in with your brand!
A fresh bowl of rice is placed delicately down in front of me. I love rice, but alone I find it pretty bland. I reach for the ornate soy sauce bottle and begin to pour it over my rice bowl. All of a sudden, a waitress rushes over and grabs my hand, gesturing frantically and speaking in rushed Japanese that I now assume is saving me from making a huge faux pas. You just don’t do that here.
I’ve been living in Japan for about four months now, and the story above encapsulates my time here. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this vastly layered and complex culture – but here are some of my thoughts about working, doing business and enjoying your time in Japan.
But first, a backstory and the plan…
Back in London I co-own an experimental women’s fashion business, REIN. We showcase at London and Paris Fashion Weeks, selling our collections predominantly in the U.K. and USA, through wholesale, our ecommerce site, Nineteenth Amendment, and regular pop up shops.
When my boyfriend was offered the opportunity to work for 6 months in Tokyo I could have said no, we could have stayed in London no problem but the adventurer in me wanted a challenge. After deliberating and voicing my concerns to my business partner Gemma, “How would it work being in two totally different time zones? How will you manage our UK side without me?” she said “Shut up, it’s a great opportunity for us to explore a new market, just go.”
So I did. Here I am, in one of the most incredible and exciting cities the world has to offer, albeit vastly different from the culture I grew up with. I didn’t have many expectations. I knew no one here. I hadn’t worked remotely before and I certainly had no idea how to do business in Japan. But what I did have was time, a good solid six months to sink my teeth into the Japanese culture (rice bowls included), grow a network and learn.
My plan was simple; 1) get inspired, after all it is one of the most artistically and culturally inspiring countries on the planet, 2) meet as many industry people as possible and 3) launch REIN into Japan.
Relationships are everything.
In Japan, people want to be friends first before doing business. The Japanese love to drink and are extremely good at it. For anyone entering a new market I would suggest a nocturnal lifestyle for the first few months at least. I met countless wonderful people through just being “out,” one woman working in importing wholesale fashion at an Airbnb mixer, various female entrepreneurs at Meetup groups, randomly at bars in the early hours, all of which have helped shape my experience and progression. Be bold and ask people out for a drink or dinner, in the end those people will also lead to new and exciting connections.
Learn a few set phrases and cultural norms.
Many times have I almost walked straight into an office completely forgetting to switch my shoes to slippers at the entrance, or leaving my tray where I was sitting in a café, forgetting to respectfully return it to the counter. Culturally there are many differences between the West and Japan. Of course the Japanese are extremely polite and would never call you out, but they will be impressed and respect you for trying. As with anywhere, making an attempt to speak the local language can get you far, I made few friends who helped me immensely with translating emails back and forth that paid off 100%.
Be aware – buyers have bosses too.
Buyers in Japan are very different from that of the West. Hierarchy plays a big role in Japanese companies and it is worth considering this in your approach. People work longer hours and leaving work early, popping out or going home before your boss is not common. I spent a lot of time researching the Japanese market, dipping in and out of stores, analyzing our competitors’ stockists and chatting with sales associates, the best decision I made was to test the product with a local agent that I had come to trust. Everyone reports to someone above them, understand that any buyer has to justify their decision to their boss, much more so than the buyers back in the West – your job is to equip them with the best argument about why your brand / business is going to be a success, just because the buyer likes your work, doesn’t mean their boss will get it.
Look for organizations to help (for free!).
Consider the organizations out there to help businesses overseas. Whilst it feels like you are alone in approaches and networking, most territories have establishments like The British Embassy for Fashion and using your local organizations such as UKFT or UKTI (in the UK) for advice on pre-market entry is a good way to get a foot in the door. We spoke to a lot of fellow brands as well as each person I met in Japan I would get as many recommendations as possible.
On a final note, with any new territory, spend as much time out and about as humanly possible, the galleries, museums and art here in Japan are unlike any other. We were fortunate to visit the art islands down south Japan and spent time on Noashima and Teshima which for anyone interested in art and design will blow your mind. Yayoi Kusuma, Tadao Ando, James Turrell, Claude Monet, Walter de Maria to name a few. Don’t forget to stop and look around, notice what is different, capture it and get inspired in your daily life and work.
Intrigued? Find out more about Rebecca, Gemma, and Rein and see their collections here.