Distribution in Japan has long been considered the most effective non-tariff barrier to the Japanese market. The distribution system is different enough from its United States or European counterparts that it should be carefully studied by anyone contemplating entry. The Japanese system has four distinguishing features: 1) a structure dominated by many small wholesalers dealing with many small retailers; 2) channel control by manufacturers; 3) a business philosophy shaped by a unique culture; and 4) laws that protect the foundation of the system, the small retailer.
High Density of Middlemen. There is a density of middlemen, retailers and wholesalers in the Japanese market unparalleled in any Western industrialized country. The traditional structure serves consumers who make small, frequent purchases, at small conveniently located stores. The high density of small stores with small inventories is supported by an equal density of wholesalers. It is not unusual for consumer goods to go through three or four intermediaries before reaching the consumer—producer to primary, secondary, regional, and local wholesaler, and finally to retailer to consumer.
Channel Control. Manufacturers depend on wholesalers for a multitude of services to other members of the distribution network. Financing, physical distribution, warehousing, inventory, promotion and payment collection are provided to other channel members by wholesalers. The system works because wholesalers and all other middlemen downstream are tied to manufacturers by a set of practices and incentives designed to ensure strong marketing support for their products and to exclude rival competitors from the channel.
Business Philosophy. Coupled with the close economic ties and dependency created by trade customs and the long structure of Japanese distribution channels is a unique business philosophy that emphasizes loyalty, harmony, and friendship. The value system supports long-term dealer/supplier relationships that are difficult to change as long as each party perceives economic advantage. The traditional partner, the insider, generally has the advantage.
Large-Scale Retail Store Law. Competition from large retail stores has been almost totally controlled by Daitenho–the Large-Scale Retail Store Law. Designed to protect small retailers from large intruders into their markets, the law requires that any store larger than 5,382 square feet (500 square meters) must have approval from the prefectural government to be “built, expanded, stay open later in the evening, or change the days of the month they must remain closed.” All proposals for new “large” stores are first judged by MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry). Then, if local retailers unanimously agree to the plan, it is swiftly approved. However, without approval at the prefecture level (all small retailers in the area must agree), the plan is returned for clarification and modification that may take several years (ten years is not unheard of) for approval. Besides the large-scale retail store law, there are myriad licensing rules. One investigation of the regulations that governed the opening of a retail store revealed 39 different licenses, each with a separate law, needed to open a full-service store.