For any foreign business planning to enter the Japanese market, attending a Tokyo trade show might seem like the obvious first step. Take pause; this is actually a trick question. Japan really doesn’t offer much in the way of traditional trade shows. Before explaining why, and what it does offer, let’s look at a few facts.
While the big convention and exhibition venues in Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama are modern and well appointed, they are not very large. Tokyo Big Sight, the country’s largest show site, offers just 80,000 sq. meters of show space. Compare this to Shanghai’s National Exhibition Center (400,000 sq. meters), or the Hannover Exhibition Center (463,000 sq. meters) in Germany, and you begin to see that Japan is no expo superpower. In fact, Germany, with a population and GDP of just two-thirds of Japan’s, boasts five event spaces in the 300,000 sq. meter plus class, and China has built its way to greater overall show space capacity than any country except the U.S. *
More importantly, Japan really isn’t in the trade show game. Here the distinction between B2B (i.e. industry trade shows and conferences) and B2C (consumer expos and exhibitions) is important. Generally, Japan offers plenty of consumer-oriented shows, but eschews the B2B show model, due to a traditional aversion to unmanaged competition between same-sector companies for new accounts – exactly what trade shows are supposed to promote. The long-held Japanese business tradition of divvying up markets based on hierarchy and consensus still pervades, especially in traditional industries. While this practice is surely outmoded in a borderless world, it has proven difficult for the Japanese to break.
However, a quick look at the show listings at Big Sight or Makuhari Messe (Tokyo’s other venue) reveals a great variety of events representing both traditional and trending industries (many of which describe themselves as “trade” shows.) These are excellent opportunities for branding, market research, and especially lead generation, even if they are not likely to produce a distribution agreement, or wholesale contract, on the spot. And make no mistake, the quality of presentation – an appealing booth and enthusiastic, knowledgeable staffers, as well as plenty of promotional items and cards – really matters here. While the consensus process that leads to a business deal likely occurs elsewhere, it is the Japanese consumer – fanatical in her interests, eager to discover new possibilities and, in a word, free to define her own way of doing business – that is the driving force within Japan’s fastest-growing markets.
* Data per http://www.statista.com