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Translating the unsaid

Trade Commissioner Craig Pettigrew can speak Japanese but says the secret to effective communication is reading body language and nuance - and helping in "lost in translation" situations.

type
Article
author
By Noel Prentice, Freelance Writer
date
1 Apr 2022
read time
5 min to read
Bright lights coming from windows of a building

As New Zealand’s Trade Commissioner in Japan for nearly six years, Craig Pettigrew is mastering the art of what is not said in a meeting.

Like Kiwis, the Japanese also prefer to avoid conflict and reading body language is very important, even more so in these covid-19 times when Zoom meetings and “lost in translation” can take on a whole new meaning.

“I am still learning about the culture and language every day, but having studied Japanese and lived here, in most settings I can pick up the very Japanese nuances and read the body language,” Pettigrew says.

“Just because someone says ‘yes’ doesn’t mean that they agree. It may just mean they hear what has been said or understand the point but are not sharing their real opinion.

“The context can be more important than the content and being able to read or appreciate what is not said in a meeting can be as important as what has been. This is especially the case where Japanese prefer to avoid conflict, or are being conservative or cautious.”

With New Zealand’s and Japan’s borders closed, Pettigrew and his team in Tokyo have never been more important as they help businesses try to stay connected.

“Our team is a mix of Kiwis and Japanese and we engage with more than 200 New Zealand companies each year, from those doing basic market entry analysis to others focused on expansion and sustainable growth. And we also enjoy getting involved in the ‘lost in translation’ situations and helping smooth over the cultural misunderstandings, stalled negotiations and unique market nuances that are part of doing global business.   

“My role is to help support our team and our objective of facilitating the growth of New Zealand businesses through export and investment partnerships. We work closely with key Japanese public and private organisations and networks to develop the relationships and knowledge needed to help our exporters leverage their business interests.”

“Japanese businesses like regular communication to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty because that creates anxiety for them. We became those messengers and facilitators to ensure business discussions continued, even to the point of arranging virtual business trips on Zoom.”

Acting as the link

With the onset of covid-19 in January 2020, and visitors from New Zealand unable to travel, Pettigrew and his team have become quasi in-market representatives for a lot of exporters.

“It’s exciting to be in-market, taking New Zealand to the world. And, for me, being in-market is where the action is,” he says.

“Japanese businesses like regular communication to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty because that creates anxiety for them. We became those messengers and facilitators to ensure business discussions continued, even to the point of arranging virtual business trips on Zoom. Relationships were enhanced and deals were done.”

Connectivity with priority markets will be the challenge when Omicron is contained and business travel resumes. Pettigrew has some advice for directors, saying get ready.

“For directors of companies engaged with Japan, the reputation of New Zealand as a safe and reliable business partner with shared values remains strong. This year recognises the 70th year of diplomatic relations between our two countries and, along with more than 40 sister city links, some of our businesses have partnerships that are more than 50 years old.

“There is a lot of common ground, but the challenge will be connectivity with priority markets. Other countries are also opening their borders and reconnecting again in person. Even though Japan has managed to adjust to online meetings and remote working, the desire and value of meeting face to face has not changed. Ensure that you or your company are ready to come to market, to acknowledge and strengthen the relationship with your partners when it is possible to visit.”

And that door has now been opened with the New Zealand government relaxing border controls and allowing Kiwis returning from the likes of Japan to go into self-isolation instead of MIQ.

This is “very welcome for exporters and we anticipate seeing more of them in-market to maintain their existing relationships and build new ones”, says Pettigrew, adding that Japan is also easing border restrictions, allowing more foreigners to enter and shortening self-isolation.

“For directors of companies engaged with Japan, the reputation of New Zealand as a safe and reliable business partner with shared values remains strong. This year recognises the 70th year of diplomatic relations between our two countries.”

Demand for goods

Despite the pandemic shutting down countries and trade routes, goods exports to Japan continued to grow in 2020, with a huge demand for “good for you” products from New Zealand as a reliable country of origin.

“Popular items were kiwifruit, apples, honey and protein (dairy and meat based),” Pettigrew says. “In 2021, the value of goods New Zealand exported to Japan increased again to the highest level in 20 years. Our key sectors of focus include food and beverage, tech (software and hardware), e-commerce, renewable energy, and health and well-being, including natural products and cosmetics.”

Of course, 2019 was also a memorable year for Pettigrew with Tokyo staging the Rugby World Cup (although the All Blacks could only finish third). “We were a very popular place for New Zealand business leaders and representatives,” he says.

His posting has also coincided with an Olympics, with Tokyo hosting the delayed 2020 Games.

“The public sentiment before the Tokyo Olympics was very negative but it did improve once the Olympics started and even more so when the Japanese athletes started to win some medals.

“In 2019, over 30 million foreigners visited Japan and prior to covid-19, in 2020, that was forecast to reach nearly 40 million. Last year, though, with no spectators allowed [at the Games] and border restrictions, only 350,000 foreign nationals visited Japan, adding to the huge economic impact on hospitality and tourism.”

Despite the multi billion-dollar burdens of the Olympics and the covid-19 response, Pettigrew says the mood in Japan is “optimistic caution - cautious but not defensive”.

“Investment activity is still strong with corporates looking to grow their portfolios globally, including New Zealand, and we are seeing a lot of interest in the tech and renewable energy sectors. Recent surveys show business and consumer sentiment are at levels as high as pre-covid-19 Japan.”

Bright lights of Tokyo

Pettigrew’s fascination with the Land of the Rising Sun started when studying Japanese at high school and the country’s long history and traditional culture.

“My first trip to Japan was as a high school exchange student during the economic bubble in the late 1980s. It was where I first experienced the energy of Tokyo with the bright neon signs, a city with a population five times that of New Zealand and lots of cool tech like the bullet train and the latest versions of the Sony Walkman (remember those!). But even with all the modern appeal, underpinning it was a culture of harmony, politeness, tradition and omoiyari (similar to manaaki).”

But tradition has also hampered gender equality in Japan. It is a hot topic, with Japan ranking a lowly 120th out of 156 in the World Economic Forum 2021 Global Gender Gap Report. New Zealand ranked fourth, behind Iceland, Finland and Norway.

“Diversity and inclusion is an area that has a lot of room for improvement,” Pettigrew says. “Female board directors on listed companies in Japan only account for 8.4%, with the ratio of women in managerial roles at 14.8%. And foreigners make up less than 2% of the total Japanese population.

“We are seeing a lot of Japanese corporate executives wearing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) badge and one goal that has been clearly identified and called out by the Japanese government is the development of a Japanese society that “achieves gender equality and ensures decent work and economic growth” by 2030.

“Being able to show the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) value proposition and intent linked to the SDGs is taking time, but it is becoming more noticeable in Japan. I believe we can learn from each other – with Japan’s extensive business experiences and global networks, and New Zealand sharing our progressive approaches, such as in the areas of sustainability and diversity and inclusion.”

And that continued learning can happen when the borders fully reopen and “it’s time to share that manaaki and omoiyari to be better together”, Pettigrew says. 

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