Japan and Belgium: challenges when exporting specialty products to Japan

Skyline of Antwerp, Europe’s second largest seaport. (shutterstock/ jorisvo)

Saskia Rock reports on the influence of traditional culture on quality expectations.

Exporting to Japan

A few years ago I attended a speech by Karel De Wolf, export manager at Ganda nv, a well-known Belgian cured ham producing company. Mr. De Wolf spoke during an event organized by the Belgium-Japan Association, so it was no wonder that he focused on his company’s export to Japan. I remember the speech fondly because his story was so recognizable and he was able to paint a very vivid picture of trying to inspire his personnel to live up to the Japanese quality expectations.

The first batch of Ganda ham that was sent to Japan, Mr. De Wolf told us, was promptly returned, not because of the quality of the ham, but mainly because the way it was packaged did not convince their Japanese business partner. So, for the next batch, Mr. De Wolf himself went down to the production line and showed his personnel how to prepare the products destined for Japan. Lining up the ham just so, only the best quality slices made the cut. The packaging had to be pristine, the labels all glued straight and in the right place. Perfectionism was required down to the exterior packaging, which had to be robust enough to survive transport to Japan and still appeal to the buyer upon arrival.

His story made me smile because I know of many similar stories, about almost every type of export to Japan and certainly concerning consumer goods. Since I’ve been living in Tokyo, I’ve seen firsthand that the products we buy in stores here are nothing short of perfect and the Japanese consumers expect nothing less. Now, in thinking about why the Japanese quality standard is so high compared to any other part of the world, I have the impression it must have something to do with the way Japanese people treat objects in their daily life and the reasons behind that behavior.


The concept of monozukuri (literally, ‘the making of things’) is somewhat related to the German Meister system, the practice of the master teaching his apprentice specialized knowledge which is used to create high quality products. In Belgium this practice has largely died out, except in some industries that require extremely skilled manual labor like diamond cutting and lace production. In Japan however, there are still many masters around teaching traditional skills like carpentry, and the making of many traditional products like tatami, kimono and implements for tea ceremony for example.

The core aspect of monozukuri is that the craftsman associates himself with his product, so anything of lesser quality reflects badly on himself. Even more than that, craftsmen aim to delight their customers by making something unique and valuable. Rather than going for low price and functionality only, the quality of the product is heavily reflected in its outside appearance. Ultimately, we know that people all over the world prefer well-designed and good-looking products, only Japan takes it a step further than most and I think monozukuri is certainly one force behind it.

Mono no aware and mottainai

Mono no aware is another, less well-known concept, which could be translated as ‘empathy towards things’ and describes the appreciation one has for a beautiful object and the inherent sadness that all beauty will fade. From an early age on, Japanese are taught to take care of everything they own, often in a standardized manner. There are accepted ways of folding clothing, leaving your shoes in the genkan, putting away your futon at night, the list of rules to follow is endless but many Japanese do not question these ways and treat their possessions carefully.

The limited space houses have to offer also contributes to that, instead of owning 4 of one kind it makes more sense to invest in a nice looking item that might be on display due to limited cupboard space. This is also tied to the concept of mottainai (wastefulness), not to throw away but recycle and repair things as much as possible. I have seen century old tea ceremony cups that were repaired with a golden seam, effectively rendering the repair more expensive than the original item. If you expect things to stay around for a long time, making them perfect in every little way is definitely not a waste.