Business Golf Games Offer Insights, Build Relationships

A Japanese client just told me that he played four rounds of golf during the Golden Week holidays. Sadly, that was four more rounds than I played, but it reminded me of the special connection between golf and business in Japan – and how useful golf can be as a tool for doing business in Japan.

Golf (or talk of golf) is one of the most common currencies in Japanese business. Many, if not most Japanese executives, love to play (and talk about their game) – sometimes to obsession. I remember the president of a former Japanese employer boasting that he played more than 180 rounds a year!
Even by Japanese standards, that was a big number (and perhaps a factor contributing to his unusually short tenure). However, golf, like the weather, is a universally popular topic of conversation, and a golf invitation will usually be well received by a Japanese client or colleague.

The most significant benefit of business golf is that it helps to build relationships. It’s similar to a night at a karaoke bar – but without the price of a hangover and bad music. Early in my career I was delighted to discover that my Japanese employer sponsored one or two tournaments a month. To my surprise, regular participation in the events did more to help me get acquainted with (and known by) the Japanese staff than anything I ever produced for work. It also gave me something to talk about with everybody in the office, especially when I had the luck to win one of the tournaments.

Of course, it’s important to keep a few guidelines in mind. As with other pursuits, the Japanese take their golf seriously. Even for a friendly round, they show up clad in golf slacks and sport coats, keep careful score, and know their etiquette. Japanese executives enjoy a friendly competition, and they expect everybody to play his or her best. However, they will give high handicappers extra strokes in order to make it a good contest.

They are very impressed by good golfers, reserving their highest regard for “single” players (i.e., people with handicaps under 10). However, a good round of business golf depends more on attitude than hitting ability.

If you happen to have the low score, be genuinely humble and thank your foursome for giving you good luck, inspiring you, helping you read the putts, driving the cart so you could focus on your game, finding your ball, and anything else you can come up with. For the bad player (or bad shot), a little bit of self-deprecating humor goes a long way – and, whatever you do, don't ever get mad, swear, or throw the club.

As in the U.S., Japanese golfers have lots of different styles, levels of competitive drive, more or less adherence to the rules of golf and so on. Business golf is a great way to uncover those differences, get insight into your partners’ personalities and approaches to life and work, and to build relationships that can really benefit your business in Japan.

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