Kim Jong Shin learned Japanese while hauling fish to market part time, stewing in hot springs and touring 350 historical sites in all 47 prefectures.
As part of an executive grooming program for South Korea’s high-tech giant Samsung Group, Kim spent a year in 1992 soaking up Japan’s history, culture and language on company money. He then returned in 1995 to head Samsung Japan Corp.’s new business development division.
Touring western Japan shot down Kim’s preconceptions of all Japanese as modest and shy. He learned that people used different words for “sorry” and “thank you,” that outside Tokyo, there was a very different Japan that could be loud, obnoxious or friendly.
Tokyo continued to surprise him, though. He talked with women who danced on stage in miniskirts at the then-flourishing disco Juliana Tokyo to try to understand why they exposed themselves.
“I learned how diverse Japan is, how strange it is sometimes,” he said, “and I came to love the country for what it is.”
Kim is now president and chief executive officer of Samsung affiliate GameOn Co., based in Tokyo. The company designs real-time games played on computers and mobile phones. South Korean and Japanese game players and programmers are linked online.
Although intensive study prepared Kim for roundabout phrases like “We will study your request in a forward-looking manner,” nothing readied him for what Kim calls “royal business Japanese” in his first year at Samsung Japan.
One encounter with convoluted phraseology was when he offered to take a client out for “yakiniku” grilled beef. The response was, “I will allow myself to presume on the good will of your words.”
“Was that a yes? Or a no?” Kim had to ask his staff.
So one of the weapons Kim uses in meetings with potential customers is a blank sheet of paper. Putting things in writing is defense against misinterpreting the frequent vague answers regarding yes or no, he said. It also enables him to distinguish between words with seemingly similar sounds, such as 100 (“hyaku”) and 800 (“happyaku”).
Kim jots down the main points of agreement, then shows the paper around, going over each item. The paper later serves as proof of the contents of the talks.
“Japan may not be a contract society, but everyone appreciates a clear delineation of points,” Kim said.
While the fluent Kim pretty much has the language issue under control, there are plenty of challenges at GameOn. In linking Japanese and South Korean online communities via games, GameOn receives constant complaints from Japanese players who demand smooth and quick response at all times. South Korean players are more tolerant of jerks and pauses in the action, Kim said.
“Japan is the world’s best test market,” Kim said. “Nowhere will you find customers as demanding of high quality.”
Cracking open the Japanese market is hard at first, he said. In the fields of both semiconductors and information technology, Japanese executives initially hesitated to do business with South Korean companies, which were perceived as lax about meeting deadlines and quality standards, he said.
But once cracked, “no other market is as friendly and good,” Kim said. “All you need are three true friends in Japan. . . . Once you scale the first wall, which is the highest, you get orders and opportunities that surprise you.”
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