If you really want to understand how Japan does business, a good place to start is a book about baseball, says former Telstra Saturn chief Jack Matthews.
In 2004 and 2005 Matthews was based in Tokyo as co-chief executive of pay TV company Jupiter Programming, a joint venture between Japanese trading giant Sumitomo and Liberty Media.
The book he recommends is You Gotta Have Wa by American author Robert Whiting, who lives in Tokyo. A fascinating yarn about the experiences of expat professional baseball players, it is as good a guide as any to Japan's unique social mores, says Matthews. (For the record, "wa" translates as "peace and tranquillity", but Whiting clearly has doubts about how this fits with contemporary Japanese culture.)
Now head of digital media for Australian publisher Fairfax, Matthews has fond memories of Japan, although he admits he eventually became frustrated with its adherence to corporate tradition. Although he was appointed to "shake it up a bit", that proved harder than he expected.
But he also found it an enriching experience, and invaluable for understanding how other cultures tick - and why the West is often perceived as arrogant.
As with many other Asian cultures, maintaining "face" is important, says Matthews, and he warns that you will never see your business associates let down their guard in your presence.
Another Kiwi who still works in Japan emphasises the importance of appearances. Westerners don't believe in judging books by their covers, he notes. "But the Japanese way of thinking is, 'How can you judge it, if not by its cover?"'
The same person notes that in Japan, as in many other countries, the outcomes of formal meetings are mostly decided beforehand, and most business is done over a beer. The Japanese also have strong views on how things should be done, he says. Sometimes, finding out what the rules are is simply a matter of trial and error.
On the other hand, Matthews mentions an Australian businesswoman who had become frustrated that her male employees never seemed to take her seriously. He taught her how to say "That's bullshit" in Japanese.
The next time she sensed she was being ignored she thumped on the boardroom table as hard as she could and bellowed the phrase at them. "The Japanese guys almost literally fell on the floor with shock," he chuckles. "But she told me it worked. Sales improved a lot after that."
As far as management fads go, many Western corporates at least give lip service to a leader's EQ (emotional quotient), but according to Meishi Sonobe, a former head of Mobil Oil of Japan, the latest trend in Japan is for leaders to pay attention to their SQ (spiritual quotient).
"You'll find many strong Japanese companies have been led by a person who has high spiritual qualities - probably a lot more so in Japan than in American corporates," he says without a hint of sarcasm.
Since retiring from Mobil Sonobe has dabbled in a variety of business interests, including the company Aucnet, which has a joint venture with Turners to import Japanese cars and motorbikes into New Zealand.
Business has slowed for Aucnet lately - the number of Japanese imports has fallen from about 150,000 vehicles a year to fewer than 40,000 thanks to our new emission standards - and Sonobe is now turning his attention to both importing and exporting state-of-the-art electric vehicles.
He is also keen to help Kiwi businesses break into the Japanese market, as the chairman of New Zealand Trade & Enterprise's latest Beachhead initiative, in Tokyo.
A former director of Millbrook, Sonobe has already had some dealings with Auckland incubator The Icehouse, and Greg Cross' clever electricity company Power by Proxi.
He knows of Christchurch company Designline, which has sold hybrid electric buses to Japan, and has it on good authority that Panasonic still uses a carbon sheet designed in New Zealand in some of its appliances.
"I'm trying to organise a group of Japanese people who are interested in helping incubators and entrepreneurs to come over to Japan and get connected to Japanese industry," he says. "The problem is you need some link, because it is a different market. Japan is very relational, as opposed to contractual, so those kinds of activities should help."
That said, New Zealanders and Japanese do share some cultural traits, including, in some cases, a mutual distrust of the Chinese.
At least one Kiwi businessman can't resist a gross generalisation: "If you're selling a knife to the Chinese, you never know if they're going to stab you in the back with it. Whereas the Japanese only care about how well designed it is."
However many Japanese executives welcome China's increasing global influence. Rather than seeing globalisation as a threat, they see it as a positive development that will help close the gap between some of the world's richest and poorest people.
"It's not that New Zealand has been disregarding Japan's presence, it's just been focusing on China, because it's a growing force," says Sonobe. "And China's growth is good for Japan or America or anybody - except for pollution and global warming."
Or maybe Japan has simply decided that it should throw its chips in with China now, rather than the United States.
Noboru Hatakayema, a former senior minister and bureaucrat who now heads the Japan Economic Foundation, puts it even more succinctly.
Asked whether he believes the West is about to embark on its own "lost decade", he replies: "Yes, I think so. Good or bad, this is the indication of globalisation of the world economy, which means that Chinese cheap labour will make a big effect on everybody in the world."
While it will be tough for the West to adjust, globalisation will ensure that human beings become "equal across borders", Hatakayema says.
"If you are born as a New Zealander, you may take it for granted that you will get 25 times the salary of someone in China.
But this is not fair. Likewise, if you are born in Japan, you can get 35 times the wages. The final castle which you could not attack was wages. So finally, thanks to globalisation, the arbitration of capital has happened in many cases."
Likewise, he argues that deflation is not necessarily the end of the world for Japan.
"This is not a solution, but we have to change our mindset. We have to understand that we will be living in the world of the real economy, not the nominal economy, therefore you have to think that even if your wages don't go up, it is okay because prices are going down. Therefore with a certain amount of money, you can purchase more products or services than before. Even for businesses, those factories can purchase more parts and components than before."
There are, of course, negative consequences as well. But China, at least, is very happy that the world is moving from a nominal economy to a world where purchasing power parity is more important, he laughs.
Some would say the Japanese ability to focus on the big picture, probably as a result of being one of the oldest civilisations on earth, has in some ways hindered its more recent development.
But we underestimate Japan at our peril, say trade officials. The real Japan, they say, is less like the movie Lost in Translation, and more like the TV series Lost: while it might appear that no one on its islands - or off them for that matter - seems to know what's really going on, whatever it is, it's probably too big to ignore.Karyn SchererBy Karyn Scherer Email Karyn