Business World

Sunday 20 October 2019

Irish business is ready to score big in Japan

Small Business

The Japanese government's Society 5.0 initiative focuses on artificial intelligence, sensor technology and automation as a means to transform the nation's way of life (stock photo)
The Japanese government's Society 5.0 initiative focuses on artificial intelligence, sensor technology and automation as a means to transform the nation's way of life (stock photo)

Pat O'Riordan

Between the upcoming Rugby World Cup and Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Irish eyes will soon be on Japan in a way they last were in the 1980s, when the country experienced its major boom. Since then, Japan may not have recovered its stellar growth rates, but it remains a seriously wealthy market, with a population of 126 million. It is the world's third-largest economy - rich, advanced and sophisticated.

It is also respectful of intellectual property and open to innovation, with corporate balance sheets of its strong exporting base being very healthy.

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Irish companies that succeed here tend to share particular attributes. These companies generally have world-class technology, products or services, and a management team that is committed to - and able to handle - the lengthy sales cycles and demanding customer service levels common in the market.

Winning requires strategic commitment and a balance sheet strong enough to support the often-long lead-in times it takes to secure contracts. This is encapsulated in the local adage that if you sit on a rock for long enough, it will eventually get warm. For businesses that can commit to that, the rewards are worthwhile.

The Japanese government's Society 5.0 initiative focuses on artificial intelligence, sensor technology and automation as a means to transform the nation's way of life.

It's a country that is keen on robotics and artificial intelligence, while its ageing population has led to demand for both assisted living solutions and medtech innovations.

Opportunities that exist for Irish businesses often emerge as a result of policy and regulatory changes.

Tourism into Japan has grown very strongly in the past decade and is on track to reach 40 million by 2020.

This is attributable to growth in regional Asian visitors generally, but also to changes in Japan's visa entry rules and the arrival of low-cost carriers into the country.

This strong growth has resulted in demand for fintech solutions, such as the kind of dynamic currency conversion pioneered by Irish company Fexco.

Traditionally, Japan's financial services industry was discouraged from heavy participation in fintech companies, but that too has changed in the past five years.

Another excellent Irish success story, in Japan's prized equine industry, is Kilkenny-based

Connolly's Red Mills, which makes scientifically advanced nutrition and healthcare solutions for animal health, well-being and performance.

The company's business development manager Michael Connolly found Harvard business professor Geert Hofstede's view of Japan, that it is the most 'foreign' country from a business point of view, to be true.

"The biggest difficulty is communications. That is not translation, it's the fact that what is not said in a meeting is what often counts most. But if you don't know what should have been said, you won't know what that means," says Connolly.

Customer acquisition takes the company up to four times longer in Japan than it does elsewhere.

"Where it might take three months in France, it will take 18 months to two years in Japan," Connolly says.

But the right product and market approach worked and today, Connolly's Red Mills is the largest importer of premium horse feeds in Japan, with a 30pc market share in premium horse food.

Between 2014 and 2018, companies we support saw year-on-year growth of 14.5pc.

The recent EU-Japan economic partnership agreement will add further momentum to the market, while the upcoming Enterprise Ireland trade mission to Japan in October will provide companies with a valuable opportunity to build and cement relationships with Japanese customer targets.

Our Japan team provides practical, on-the- ground assistance in relation to market research, introductions to partners, itineraries, and local expertise, enabling companies to become operational in Japan.

In the meantime, there is the luck of the draw to capitalise on.

Being in the same pool as Japan in the Rugby World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Ireland to get a visibility lift in a country where it has rising ambitions.

  • Pat O'Riordan is overseas manager for Japan & Korea at Enterprise Ireland

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