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Saturday, June 28, 2003


Doing business: the 'uchiawase' vortex

It has never been easier to start a business in Japan. These days, anyone can register a business with zero money and an "inkan" stamp. Indeed, this is what attracted me. I thought: Hey I have no money -- I'll start a business!

On my planet, the United States, printing up advertising is a simple matter of walking into the nearest print shop, choosing from an array of samples and comparing them to a price list that varies depending on how many postcards you want printed. After you decide what you want, it takes a week to 10 days to have the order filled.

Not Japan. After 10 days, I was still in the throes of "uchiawase." These face-to-face business meetings are the prerequisite to doing any business with the Japanese.

It started with an introduction by a mutual friend. Then I talked to the printer to set up an appointment. "I can stop by your office today," I offered. "Oh no, our office is very hard to find," he said, and suggested meeting at a hotel coffee shop instead.

We met at the hotel, ordered coffee and got straight down to business. I showed him the design I wanted for advertising postcards, handed him a disk with my logo already formatted, and asked him how much it would cost. Oh, "very cheap," he assured me. But how cheap? I wondered. Cheap cheap or expensive cheap?

A few days later, he called me and said he had a sample of the postcard he wanted to show me. "I can stop by your office in the afternoon," I said. "I found it on the map, so I should have no problem finding it."

"Oh no," he said, "Let's meet somewhere near the station."

Why doesn't he want me to see his office? I wondered. I agreed to meet him at a coffee shop, all the while resisting the urge to call President Bush on my cell phone to tell him I think I knew where Saddam Hussein was hiding his weapons of mass destruction.

While sipping coffee, I looked over the sample he had prepared. He told me to suggest any changes. Now, it is my opinion that the use of color in Japan borders on abusive. "Um, about this psychedelic cow," I started. "My company logo is indeed a cow, but a black-and-white cow. We make natural products, and that feeling should be reflected in the basic black-and-white colors. The only color on the cow should be pink for the lips and the -- um," I stumbled, realizing I didn't know the word for "udder" in Japanese. Surely I couldn't call them cow breasts! So I pointed to the udder, careful to avoid any potentially offensive words, and said, "this place where the milk comes out."

"Oh!" he said, "you mean the nipples!" So much for Japanese being a vague language.

"So, how much is it for postcards in black and white with just a smattering of pink for the lips and, um, nipples?" I asked. He paused while adding up the figures in his head. Perhaps he was charging per nipple. Finally, he said, "Very cheap!"

A few days later, the fax churned out the "O-mitsumorisho" -- the price list. At last I would know the definition of cheap! Cheap is cheap at over 5,000 copies of something. Anything under that is expensive cheap. The quote was only for what I had requested. No other prices or options were given.

I immediately called the printer to ask a few questions about the paper quality. "Oh, let's meet at the station," he said. I was beginning to feel like we were dating.

Two more uchiawase later, we finally finished the postcard. That's five meetings and five coffees to make one postcard!

Now, all I have to do is wait 10 days for the printing.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.

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