Japanese firms built their overseas strength by targeting niche segments of markets they deemed strategically important for their future. They were supported by government agencies, both in researching new territories and in keeping foreign competitors out of Japan. As a result, once-small Japanese firms like Sony and Honda are now global brands.
An EU initiative, called the Gateway to Japan export promotion programme, has taken a page out of the Japanese book to help smaller European firms, new to the Japanese market, to penetrate Japan. An initial two-year programme begun in 1994 is being extended to 1998, while a new campaign will run until the year 2000. The campaign has assisted 307 EU companies and is supported by many organisations in Japan, including the Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI) and Jetro (Japan External Trade Relations Organisation). Over the past few years it has contributed to a rise in Japanese imports in the target industries and has helped reverse a decline in the value of Japanese imports from Europe that began in 1990.
The project offers an analysis of the Japanese market and opportunities for EU firms. For each area, in an effort to bring about business talks with a greater number of Japanese firms, trade missions are dispatched and trade fairs organised. The areas currently covered are medical equipment, marine equipment, waste management technologies, materials-handling equipment, construction materials, packaging machinery, food, drink, information technologies, outdoor life and entertainment equipment.
There’s also tangible support for doing business in Japan, not merely theoretical explanations. This includes seminars on how business is done in Japan, and latest trends. Japanese government agencies, such as Jetro, help make the scheme work.
Since the scheme began, the number of Japanese visitors to fairs and seminars held in Japan has increased, say EU representatives in Tokyo.
Two areas that have proved interesting to the Japanese are furniture and waste management technology (Japan has almost run out of landfill sites and suitable locations where refuse can be used to reclaim land from the Ocean depths). Another area of interest is medical equipment.
Since the UK is the largest recipient of Japanese investment in Europe, and also the favourite European tourist destination, there is a familiarity with British business practices, products, and life among the Japanese. English is also the foreign language with which the Japanese are most familiar. Even so, UK firms have lagged behind their counterparts in Europe in taking advantage of the scheme. The first two years of the Gateway Program saw 21 UK participants, compared with 58 from Germany, 52 from France, 37 from Spain, and 34 from Italy.