Phil and Alex Soar: How to launch a trade show in Japan

In 1987 Philip Soar went to Japan to set up a publishing company from scratch. It became the only magazine publishing company in Tokyo which was not Japanese owned and in 1991 won the Japanese Publisher of the Year Award.

Thirty years later Philip’s son, Alexander Hanrahan-Soar, went to Japan to launch DSEI Japan – the first time since the War that Japan had allowed a defence exhibition. It too was a great success, leading to two major nominations at the EN Awards in 2021.

Here father and son tell Exhibition News what it is like to run shows in Japan. 

What were the toughest bits?

Phil: Travel. When I began you had to fly through Anchorage and it took 18 hours and two night-times on the way back. I went 33 times in 5 years and was permanently jet lagged, not to mention always picking up bugs. And Narita, the main airport, was a nightmare. No rail links then so it was a three-hour bus ride into Tokyo.

Alex: Flying in and out is still tough, despite the shorter 14 hour flight. I was spending at least 2 weeks a month in Tokyo throughout 2019. So when you are spending two or even three days a month just sitting on a plane, that is a grind, even if you enjoy air travel.   I’m told that I am one of only a handful of people to ever get BA Gold status purely by flying in economy. Lucky getting to Tokyo is now incredibly easy. The train system is astonishing once you have worked it out.

What were the cultural issues?

Phil: Numerous. Japan is a very different country – there is no single Japanese word for “No” for instance. I also worked with some of the big American publishers like Time and Readers Digest. Meetings would consist of say 4 Americans and 4 Japanese. In Japan the boss says very little and the most junior member says most. In the US, of course, the opposite is true. So we would end with the Japanese addressing the most junior American, thinking he was the boss, and the Americans doing the same – addressing the most junior member thinking he was the boss as he spoke most.

Alex: A great deal of that stems from the idea that were the senior guys to make a mistake in their English, that would be very embarrassing, so the most junior guys tend to do more of the speaking. If they make a mistake it doesn’t matter.

At times the pace of decision making can be frustrating. The concept of consensus is quite important. Everyone needs to agree on a direction, which can take some time. But once the decision is made, things move very quickly.

If you are the only westerner in the room, you should be prepared to occasionally be used by your Japanese colleagues to ask the awkward or difficult questions. As I discovered when I pointed out a flaw in our Japanese chairman’s ideas. His anger was palpable.

Long pauses in business conversation are normal, and whilst you might feel the urge to jump in and fill the silence, don’t. It is often a way of your Japanese counterpart showing that they are thinking hard about your proposal and carefully considering their next question. Replying fast and asking rapid fire questions shows a lack of consideration, not the razor-sharp mind that some in Europe might assume.

What about language?

Phil: It is very hard to learn, though I did manage to make some speeches in Japanese. In my time there, the prevailing Japanese view was that “gaijin” foreigners /westerners as we were called, could never speak Japanese properly. We had one team member, an Australian, who did speak Japanese quite well. In meetings he would always introduce himself and make it clear that he spoke the language. But printers and distributors always talked among themselves thinking that no one on “our” side could possibly understand them. Even after we had made it clear that one of our team did speak Japanese, they would continue to talk as though he wasn’t there – which helped us in negotiations enormously.

Alex: Whilst there is still an element of surprise at a westerner who can speak Japanese well or is familiar with more obscure cultural aspects, I think the majority of this is gone now. Japanese culture is very common in the west, and visa versa, if in a more dilute form. I think people find it more surprising that westerners don’t know to take their shoes off when entering a room or when they are inadvertently rude.  

What about getting around?

Phil: When I first went there in the late 1980s there was very little in English. Navigating the subways was not easy – one just had to learn the maps. I travelled all over the country and on provincial flights only Japanese was used. It was a challenge.

The most complex problem was street numbers. In Japan the houses are numbered according to when they were built – so you might have number 67 next to 1156 next to 2 next to 456. The fax was a Japanese invention largely to overcome this problem. When I had a meeting I would ask for a fax of the street layout to be sent to me which I would give to the taxi driver. There wasn’t any other way.

Alex: Most subway maps are not in English, but the cost from station to station is, so you can always just buy a ticket for a given cost. Most places will have their equivalent of an oyster card, and the machines that dispense them have an English option. So that can be a quick workaround for moving around Tokyo.

However, many of the rail and subway lines are owned by different private companies, so you do need to make sure you are buying the right ticket for the right line.  Many times I found I had bought a ticket for the wrong line even if it was the next platform.

The taxis in Tokyo are fantastic. Always clean, scrupulously honest and enormously helpful. The drivers are wonderful, with their white gloves and peaked caps. Always happy to put up with (and laugh at) the westerner who has no idea where he is going or how to get there.

Very positive things?

Phil: People were almost invariably very helpful. It is a very honest society. The safest place you can leave a wallet is in a taxi cab – the driver will return it to your hotel immediately. You learn never to look at your change – counting change is a major insult. Generally the structure operates very efficiently. The Shinkansen (bullet trains) are amazing – if one is 10 seconds late there are profuse apologies. Nowadays everything is announced in English as well, so that helps.

Alex: Yes, I have travelled to lots of different parts of Japan over the last ten years or so, from massive metropolis to tiny mountain village, and I have never felt unsafe or unwelcome. We were sometimes “of interest” to people, but never in a rude or obtrusive way.  The Japanese people are wonderful. There have been dozens of occasions where strangers have asked if we knew where we were going, made sure we got off the train at the right stop and on one occasion walked us a good 2o minutes to our destination.

People talk about it being a sexist society, relative to the USA or Europe

Phil: When I was there it certainly was. The only senior female we ever worked with was a creative director in our advertising agency. Most of our London directors were female – editorial, marketing, financial – and this presented a major problem. There was little point sending them to Tokyo as the Japanese we were working with would simply not take them seriously. The culture was that females manned reception desks, served tea etc but were not to be taken seriously. Geishas were still the order of the day in senior circles. I was taken to geisha houses on a number of occasions (very demure) and this was a great honour.

Alex: I think this has reduced greatly in the last ten years or so. There have been solid efforts on behalf of the Japanese government to get more women back into work after having children, and in promoting women in the workplace.

I do still think there is an undercurrent of sexism in the workplace, particularly among the older generation. I once had a rather strange argument, when I was told that there were no chairs available for our female operations manager to join a meeting with our steering committee. It took a good 15 minutes discussion before a chair was miraculously found and she was able to join the meeting.

How difficult was negotiating legal agreements?

Phil: Very different. In 1989 there were only 4,000 lawyers in the whole of Japan. Everything really was done on “your word is your bond” – “face” was critical in all situations, so being found to be dishonest would be earth shattering. While we did have the necessary legal agreements with distributors etc, I never remember them ever being looked at. If problems did arise, they would always be resolved with a discussion and a handshake. There was no other Western owned publisher in Tokyo at the time, so we were very much on our own and ploughing new furrows. We had no choice but to trust the people we were dealing with.

The other cultural artefact which is still the norm today is the “hanko”, which is the wooden stamp (sometimes called a “chop”) most Japanese people and companies still use to authorise payments. Even now, if you are paying a utility or tax bill you have to stamp it with your hanko for it to be valid.

The Japanese have a sales tax (like VAT) which was 3% when I was there. But their tax system did not recognise the existence of non-Japanese companies. So when we tried to pay the 3% tax we had collected for the government we were told we couldn’t. We had to charge it, but we ended up keeping all of it. It made a hefty difference to our profits.

Alex: My experience was surprising the reverse of that. Whilst some aspects were still done on the strength of your word, I found that there is now a very stringent demand for perfect legalese on all our contracts. The T&Cs were pored over at length, and requests for clarification or amendments were pretty much guaranteed.

Invoicing was a real sticking point for us. If the contract says you will be invoiced 20% of the contract value on the 10th of the month, then you must do exactly that. If the invoice is a day late or there is some sort of variation to the value, this causes major issues. We spent a great deal of time and effort trying to smooth those problems out. A week’s delay in invoicing very nearly cost us a major client.

The hanko is still very prevalent. So you ended up with these beautiful and elegant hanko sitting next to a slightly smudged and worn “CLARION EVENTS” stamp that somebody stole from our accounts department.

Did history and the war ever come up?

Phil: Surprisingly perhaps, yes. In Japan there is no guarantee that you can get magazines distributed – unlike in the UK where WHS etc will carry what you produce. So negotiations with the two largest distributors were the trickiest of all. I flew to Tokyo once solely to have a 60-minute lunch with the President of the equivalent of WHS (as they had no other non-Japanese clients, I was treated as an oddity). The moment I realised he was going to say yes was when he bought out pictures of himself as a 17-year-old soldier in Shanghai. He had barely been involved in fighting, but like most Japanese I met he saw the war through the prism of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was one of the most interesting meals I have ever had.

Alex: Being in the defence market, perhaps not as much as you might think. I did have one client who had an enormous model of the Japanese Imperial Navy battleship Yamamoto behind his desk. I cannot imagine his German opposite number doing the same with the Bismarck for example.

There are certainly not the same feelings towards the war as there are in Europe. The war is taught very differently in Japanese schools in comparison to the West. There is not the same awareness of events or their wider repercussions. In the older generations there is still some lingering sense of the Japanese being “victims” because of the bombing. This is not true of the younger generations.

And what about food and meals?

Phil: We were constantly being tested. We would be taken to seafood restaurants where squid were cut up in front of us and we had to eat them. The trickiest was live prawns, which were dropped onto hot plates whence they naturally jumped. The game was to catch them in mid air and swallow them. This was a common right of passage. Taking the whole team (solely male, obviously) out to bars for 5 hour drinking sessions was required. Even in those days they would cost me $10,000 and everyone would go home completely legless. That was tough. And the Karaoke – I never want to hear “My Way” again.

Alex: There was a fair bit of “what can we get the foreigner to eat” games played by both Japanese colleagues and clients alike. Although always in good spirits. Squid liver in raw eggs was a favourite. It eventually stopped when the MD of our partners in Japan and I ate Fugu together. Fugu is a type of highly poisonous blowfish served as a delicacy in certain restaurants. If the chef has made a mistake in preparing it, you will have a very bad day. After that he seemed happier with my ability to handle Japanese food.

Japanese food is almost always wonderful. You can have the some of the best meals of your life in tiny corner noodle shops or what feels like somebodies’ front room. Far better than their vastly expensive Michelin star equivalents in London.

Whilst there are lots of normal bars in Tokyo, the really special ones are very small 10 or 15 person rooms, often one on top another in narrow blocks. Each floor is different bar, with 5 or 6 bars stacked from the basement to the top floor.

We were very lucky to have discovered Bob’s Bar in Ginza fairly early on, and that served as our home from home and cultural induction for quite a few years.

If you have never heard an elderly Japanese man belting out “Let it be” at 2am, I heartily recommend it.

How about pricing your products?

Phil: Interesting. In all major European markets we used focus groups to test products and pricing. We did the same in Japan in provincial cities like Miyagi and Sendai. We started thinking about pricing Aircraft and Great Artists at 400 Yen – which was already 50% higher than in Europe. But the focus groups surprised us. They consistently argued our prices were too low. We didn’t know what to make of this. Maybe they were too low, or maybe Japanese groups were invariably polite and non-critical. In the end we went for 500 Yen and Artists became the single biggest selling magazine in Japan in 1990. I still cannot work out the reasons for the pricing perceptions, other than we believe we have reference points when we actually don’t. I have never seen that reaction in any other market for any other products.

Alex: Variable stand pricing and early bird rates, were frowned upon and regarded as unfair.  Whilst I did not find Japan to be as price sensitive a market as most that I have worked in, you have to ensure that the value is clearly shown. You have to have an element of sympathy for the client’s needs, I feel more so than in other markets. The person signing the contract is putting more on the line than their western equivalent.

It’s worth bearing in mind when pricing your products that expectations of the aesthetics of an exhibition are significantly different in comparison to Europe. Carpeted aisles are very much optional and the cost of fully carpeting a large exhibition can be astonishingly expensive as well as being an alien concept. Choosing a carpet colour out of the normal black or grey will also make a several thousand dollars difference to your operational costs.

Catering onsite is also very unusual in Japanese exhibitions, even down to having coffee on exhibitors stands. That’s a conversation worth having very early on, lest you end up with a selection of food trucks parked around the hall.

Did it work out OK?

Phil: Very much so. In 1990 we had the biggest selling magazine in Japan and in 1991 won a Japanese Publisher of the Year Award. This was apparently unique for a non-Japanese company. To begin with the company was simply me flying back and forth to Japan every month, but we opened an office in 1991 and it grew to 100 staff. It soon became the most profitable part of the DeAgostini publishing group.

Alex: Yes, it turned over in excess of $2 million first time out and looked to have a great future. Then came the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, which meant that the halls couldn’t accommodate it that year. Then of course Covid-19, which ruled out 2020, 2021 and even as we write in 2022 business travel to Japan is still severely restricted and there are no international events. Our plans to launch in Vietnam were also scuppered by Covid-19. So a great success but also, paradoxically, leading to a great subsequent disappointment. I would love to go back again.

Japan is a great country to visit. Different but very friendly, very safe and easy to travel around. A wonderful place for a holiday, or for an exhibition.





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