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SETTAI: How to Make Most Out of Japanese Hospitality


“Settai” is the Japanese term for entertaining business partners.  It includes drinks, dinner, lunches, and weekend golf rounds. Budgets for such hospitality expenses can often exceed other business necessities.

The world just saw the best public example of this during the state visit of President Trump to Japan.

Opportunity to Showcase the Tradition:

Prime Minister Abe suggested inviting the President in the autumn of 2018 and there ensued the meticulous business of entertainment planning, aiming for the end of May 2019.  The thinking process would have been similar to the SETTAI conducted by many traditional Japanese businesses receiving overseas guests.

Settai is considered an occasion to demonstrate the host’s hospitality, generosity, knowledge and understanding of the guest’s practices and preferences, and to showcase the best of local traditions.  It could include such activities as a trip to a theatre or a tea ceremony, or a baseball match.  The entertainment often involves the host and guests participating in some taster activities.

In the Abe – Trump case, it involved playing golf (as they both love it), watching a Sumo wrestling final (an familiar Japanese tradition, with the guest in this instance participating in prize giving), and dining at a traditional, somewhat informal, Izakaya style restaurant (where the diners can choose to order either safe or adventurous menu).

Some may feel this process over the top, but for hosts, it is an opportunity to demonstrate their thinking processes and business practices;  all of which enrich business relationships in the future, through a better mutual understanding.

Preparation as an Important Process

It is essential that officials or personal assistants carry out thorough research when the boss decides to invite an important customer.  There would be numerous exchanges between secretaries regarding preferences of the guests, from hobbies, special interests, preferred styles [formal or informal], and dietary requirements.  The questions may be quite extensive, but there without any intention of invading privacy:  It is the necessary groundwork carried out in good faith to make sure that the guest will have the most pleasant time possible during the visit.

It is not impolite to be straightforward regarding preferences during the preparation stages, rather than embarrassing the host who may otherwise, for example, serve the best wagyu beef dinner to a vegetarian guest.  Officials/representative on both sides must be able to communicate frankly and openly to maximise the effect of the occasion for future relationships.  The efficiency of the teams is also assessed during the whole process.

Wasteful and/or Fruitful

Even in Japan, many business people feel that money and time could be spent differently and better.  However, for those who host the entertainment, such as Prime Minister Abe for President Trump, the time spent together means serious business.

The host will inquire about important matters between golf rounds, the guest will have chance to find out what the intentions are while watching sumo wrestling matches, and both sides may be sounding and exploring strengths, weaknesses, or new business opportunities over informal dinners.  Many chefs at top Sushi bars or Teppanyaki restaurants are experts in keeping the conversation rolling to help the host during a business dinner, and they keep the dialogue strictly within their restaurant walls.

Discussions between host and the guest will not be recorded on official minutes, emails or messaging services.  It will stay private, and it could lead to surprising short term deals, unexpected midterm negotiations, or sometimes long-term investments.  It is all dependant on the the agendas of all involved, to make the most of the short duration of the visit.

We wait to see what Abe-Trump relationship building will bring in the future, as both Japan and the USA are entering election seasons.

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