The cover of "Communicating With the Japanese in Business" shows how misunderstanding can take root on both sides.

Since they began setting up shop in the U.S. in large numbers following the trade turbulence of the 1980s, Japanese companies have quietly become major contributors to American employment, especially in manufacturing.  

As the epicenter of the automotive industry has moved southward in recent years, the trend has solidified.  

In Georgia alone, some 218 separate Japanese firms have invested more than $20 million each, with all firms from the country creating more than 31,400 jobs.  

But how can the state keep this longstanding relationship from growing stale?  

Turns out, the answer is simple: Attentive listening, even for needs that aren’t being explicitly voiced, speakers said during a webinar on Japanese company retention hosted by the Japan-America Society of Georgia 

Watch the full webinar below: 

Japanese culture jibes well with Georgia’s economic development ethos, which prizes developing relationships and focusing on long-term success, says Joseph Huntemann, a Japanese-speaking senior project manager at the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The state has a strong track record on those fronts, operating a Tokyo office for about four decades and hosting Japanese firms since the 1970s.  
Joseph Huntemann

But other cultural issues may create misunderstanding if communities aren’t attuned to Japanese modes of expression.

Japanese firms are rarely transactional, and they’re often reticent to bring up problems. Even when they do outline an acute need, executives generally shy away from asking for specific solutions, Mr. Huntemann said.   

“They’ll sort of talk around the subject, and it’s oftentimes up to us either at the state or local level to pick up on what the problems are that they’re really trying to get at,” he added. “So being attentive is critically important when dealing with Japanese companies.” 

As with American companies, it’s vital that economic development agencies periodically check in on their Japanese investment projects and come up with proactive, creative solutions to address their challenges. 

“It takes a lot of patience. It’s not a process that can be accomplished with a couple quick emails,” Mr. Huntemann said.  

For Cartersville-Bartow County, initiating and maintaining Japanese relationships has been crucial to grow its manufacturing base. Japanese companies like Toyo Tire, Yanmar, Komatsu and the latest, Nippon Light Metal, account for eight of the 37 international manufacturers in a county home to about 170 factories. Japanese companies employ some 2,370 people in the area.  

Japanese firms may be less direct, but the importance of listening stands for all companies, regardless of national origin, just as they share common needs of a good workforce, solid infrastructure and an efficient operating environment, said Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development. 

“They all need someone to listen to them to try and understand their needs. We need to listen to the direct needs and we need to anticipate other these haven’t asked for yet. Knowing our communities, we might be able to navigate them through a tricky situation,” Ms. Lemmon said. “We don’t want surprises. In my experience, surprises are not necessarily a good thing.”  

Through a series of surveys by the Japan External Trade Organization during the pandemic, companies have been speaking loud and clear about their challenges operating in the United States.  

While enduring sales declines due to production outages at downstream facilities and overall demand shocks, most are maintaining or expanding their U.S. operations. Yet many still express misgivings over their ability to attract the right workers.  

Melinda Lemmon

Before the pandemic, it was an issue of labor availability, given the historically low unemployment rate. Now, the picture is more complex, given the uncertainty around working arrangements due to the pandemic.  

Generous with benefits, Japanese firms cite health care costs as a major headwind to their operations, and in the South, three quarters say recruiting engineers and factory workers remains their top challenge, according to Takuya Takahashi, chief executive director of the JETRO Atlanta office.  

One creative solution in Bartow County was to connect a local company with the Bartow County College and Career Academy to create a mechatronics program that will help build a pipeline of workers, Ms. Lemmon said.  

Beyond that, she added keeping up regular communication about issues like COVID recovery, available incentives and  

She also noted that both sides should try to understand the other, focusing on their commonalities rather than their differences, taking the opportunity to engage in cultural exchange in the communities and within the companies themselves. Bartow County often hosts Japanese dignitaries at the community’s Booth Western Art Museum, which offers a unique setting and ample meeting space.  

While she has given up on gaining fluency in Japanese, Ms. Lemmon said translating a business card goes a long way toward showing sensitivity. It also helps to be aware of how bilateral policy issues like trade disputes and tariffs might affect their local business, she said.  

Also valuable, speakers said during the question-and-answer period, is knowing how much Japanese value sustainability in their operations, as well as long-term business planning.  

Jessica Cork, a vice president for early Japanese investor in Georgia YKK and the chair-elect of the Japan-America Society, pointed out a resource that has been useful to many over the years: JETRO’s written guide on “Communicating With the Japanese in Business,” which is downloadable free here 

Moderating the discussion was Daraka Satcher of Taylor English Decisions, the law firm’s consulting arm, who was instrumental in setting up a Japan caucus in the Georgia state legislature.  

Deputy Japanese Consul General Mamoru Fukunaga outlined the transfer of power in Japan from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who recently stepped down for health reasons, to fellow Liberal Democratic Party politician Yoshihide Suga.

Mr. Fukunaga, who is serving as the top diplomat for the Southeast as Consul General Kazuyuki Takeuchi travels in Japan, said the new prime minister is poised to continue with Mr. Abe’s economic transformation initiative, which has been derailed somewhat by the pandemic. Japan has largely gotten its outbreak under control, though its economy has suffered a slowdown.

“I believe the new administration is making a head start for economic recovery and convening the Olympics next year as a testament to overcoming the pandemic,” Mr. Fukunaga said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...