From Japanology to Sake Empire: How this Belgian Entrepreneur Bridged Cultures

Annabelle Maes
July 9, 2024   |   , Interviews, Articles
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Annabelle Maes turned her passion for Japanese culture into a thriving import business.

When Annabelle Maes was 32, she found herself at a crossroads. After five years of extensive travel with Toyota Boshoku, she was ready to settle down. But rather than continuing her corporate career, Maes took a leap of faith into entrepreneurship, founding Kaori Tea and Spices – now one of Belgium’s largest importers of Japanese sake and tea.

In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to bridge cultures and markets is a valuable skill. Annabelle’s journey from studying Japanology to working for Toyota, and finally founding her own company, provides a roadmap for entrepreneurs looking to tap into the rich cultural and commercial exchange between Japan and the West.

The power of cultural immersion

Her decision was driven by a long-held dream: to build an import business with Japan, fueled by her passion for tea.

But Annabelle’s journey wasn’t just about following her passion. It was about leveraging her unique skills in a global market.

“I started studying Japanology because I always knew my personal skill was languages and culture,” she explains. “I absolutely didn’t like mathematics or science, so it was my obvious choice.”

This decision might seem counterintuitive in a world that often prioritizes STEM skills. But for Annabelle, it was the foundation of her success. Her deep understanding of Japanese culture gave her an edge in a market where cultural nuances can make or break a deal.

Leveraging language skills in business

At Toyota, Annabelle quickly learned the value of her language skills. “Japanese people value people that speak languages from cultures other than Western ones,” she notes. “You’re more valued if you have a language background to become big in a corporate company in Japan.”

Also read: The Art of Doing Business with the Japanese, by Toru Takahashi

But it wasn’t just about speaking the language. Annabelle’ success hinged on her ability to navigate the complex web of Japanese business culture. One of the biggest hurdles? The prevalence of intermediaries in Japanese business.

Building connections: the key to Japanese partnerships

“There’s a very interesting tendency in Japan to always work through middlemen, middle companies,” Annabelle explains. “Most small startups don’t have this intermediary company. They don’t know how to find this company.”

For many Western entrepreneurs, this system can be a dealbreaker. But Annabelle saw it as an opportunity to stand out. Her advice? Get on a plane.

“Going to Japan… I don’t think you necessarily need to speak Japanese, but it’s important to have experience with Japanese culture and to have been there to visit the company,” she says.

Interestingly, Annabelle’s experience has debunked some myths about doing business in Japan, while confirming others. “I honestly believe most of the myths are true: it is difficult to do direct business with Japanese companies, it takes a while before you gain their trust, expectations are high, but deliveries are correct,” she says. However, she adds a surprising insight: “The only thing I did find different is that there is respect for foreign women in business. Doing business doesn’t make it more difficult because you are a woman, meeting a foreign female CEO is very normal, also in Japan.”

When it comes to navigating the hierarchical structure often associated with Japanese business, Annabelle’s experience has been unique. “Since I am a small size company and the middleman/export company whom I work with is also small size company, we are both CEOs and mostly in contact with CEOs directly,” she explains. “Probably because my suppliers are in business areas which are declining/disappearing, and export is a really important market. Hierarchy never seemed as important, compared to the period I was an employee myself at a large-scale company.”

Marketing with authenticity

A hands-on approach has been crucial to Annabelle’s success. But bringing Japanese products to the Belgian market came with its own set of challenges. Chief among them? Education.

“If you offer a high quality, premium product, with a high price attached to it, you have to offer the education with it in order to be able to sell,” Annabelle says.

This meant not just selling tea and sake, but teaching Belgians about Japanese culture, brewing methods, and flavor profiles. It’s a time-consuming process, but for Annabelle, it’s the heart of her business.

“You need this vision in order to be successful,” she reflects. “Because if you do it just to make money, you don’t do it. Then you better do something else. It’s more about the beauty of being able to convince people about Japanese culture.”

One aspect, from Japanese business practice, is that of prioritizing the customer. “We try to integrate customer first and service to the fullest,” she says. “It’s not always easy to integrate to a full extent, but it’s a winner in the long run.”

As for the future? Annabelle is just getting started. With the growing global interest in Japanese cuisine and culture, her blend of cultural expertise and business savvy is set to take her far.

Takeaways

  • Cultural immersion: Developing a deep understanding of Japanese culture can provide a competitive edge.
  • Language skills: Japanese proficiency can be key to opening doors and building trust with suppliers.
  • Personal connections: Face-to-face interactions in Japan are still crucial for establishing partnerships.
  • Navigating intermediaries: Understanding and working within Japan’s business culture can sometimes mean navigating middlemen and stakeholders alike.
  • Education-first approach: Teaching customers about Japanese products and culture can drive sales of premium items.
  • Passion-driven strategy: Long-term vision and genuine interest in the culture is key to sustaining a business through challenges.
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