Lessons from Japan Part Three

A few weeks ago, in Part 1 of my “Lessons from Japan” series, I wrote about some retail tackle shops I recently visited in Osaka. In Part 2, I wrote about the Osaka tackle show.

Well, you’ve seen retail shops and attended tackle shows, so in this installment I’m going to talk about an aspect of the Japanese business culture that’s unique. There’s an opportunity to do almost exactly the same thing here in the U.S., but no one does it, and on one level I really don’t blame them.

I’m talking about karaoke. On my trip to Osaka to visit the fine people of the Gamakatsu company and tour the Osaka tackle show, I spent two nights in karaoke clubs, listening to — and occasionally singing with — the folks from Gamakatsu and their representatives in the U.S., Europe and Asia. It was an eclectic group with eclectic musical tastes and eclectic fishing interests.

The first thing I should say about Japanese karaoke clubs is that they are very different from American karaoke bars. The Japanese club offers customers a private room for their group to sing together and enjoy each other’s company. The American karaoke bar is a watering hole for those who think they can sing and those too drunk to care whether they can carry a tune or not.

You will know when I enter an American karaoke bar. I will be the one kicking and screaming.

Luckily, karaoke in the country where it started (Japan) is far more palatable.

I learned most of what I know about singing karaoke from Gamakatsu’s Jeff Roberts. He offered me no voice lessons (I am beyond hope) but did give me the greatest piece of advice I ever got on the subject.

“Pick a song everybody knows,” he said. “They’ll sing along and you won’t have to carry the whole thing.”

Clearly, the man is a genius! Gamakatsu is not paying him nearly enough.

Unfortunately, while Jeff’s advice was outstanding, his timing was less than optimal. I had already “sung” Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” (I love Dylan’s music, and since his voice is not conventionally great, I figured my voice might not sound so bad in comparison. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about that.)

Here’s the real deal, for reference:


Now ordinarily, there’s just no way I would ever sing in public. I don’t even lip-synch to the radio when I’m driving down the highway. And the volume of alcohol required to get me to sing in public is ironically identical to the amount that would cause me to pass out and lie on the floor for hours.

In other words, karaoke is not my “thing.” It is, however, the thing for many Japanese business people. After all the ceremonial bowing, gift-giving and incredibly polite protocols, everyone relaxes in the karaoke club … everyone but me — the bad Bob Dylan impersonator.

Now that I’ve been to a few karaoke clubs — on business trips and with my extended family (my wife is Japanese) — I have a clearer perspective of the role of karaoke. It’s a bonding tool, a way for everyone to let down their guard and be less formal. After all, how formal can you be when someone is singing a Britney Spears song?

In the U.S. — and probably in most other cultures — it can take quite a while to get to that point of familiarity. Days. Weeks. Months. In Japan, it takes one round of songs at a karaoke club.

It got me asking questions. What are you doing to build connections with the people important to your business? How are you breaking down barriers? What tools do you have to help? Maybe there’s no karaoke club near you with private rooms, but I bet you have other options.

One option is fishing, and if you’re in the fishing business, taking someone fishing should be your go-to bond-building technique. But even if it’s not, I hope you’ll find something — something that forces people to let down their guard and be somehow different from the way they are in business. Something that’s fun and informal and maybe a little out of their comfort zone.

After decades in the industry, I can tell you that the fishing business is not built on products or talents or bottom lines. It’s built on relationships, and the person with the best relationships wins. Not some of the time or most of the time, but all of the time.

And sometimes — just sometimes — you have to sing for it.