Exporting to Japan: What You Need to Know

David Noah | December 2, 2020 | Export Markets
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Exporting to Japan: What You Need to Know | Shipping SolutionsThe United States’ relationship with Japan is an interesting and complex one. Japan’s culture, large middle class, aging population and turbulent economic history blend to create an environment that makes exporting to Japan both promising and, in some cases, difficult.

In this article, I’ll look at the history of U.S. trade with Japan; the process of exporting to Japan; understanding cultural complexities; documentation and compliance requirements; and the benefits and considerations for U.S. companies looking to break into the Japanese market.

The Japanese Economy

After World War II, Japan grew into a global economic power with impressive growth in the 1960s through the 1980s. In 1991, an asset price bubble caused by inflated real estate and stock prices burst causing the Japanese economy to stagnate. Modest economic growth continued after 2000, but the economy has fallen into recession four times since 2008.

Japan’s dependence on imported energy and other raw materials was exacerbated in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami disaster resulted in the complete shutdown of the country’s nuclear reactors.

Despite these challenges, Japan’s economy was ranked fourth in the world in 2017 as measured by a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis that adjusts for price differences. (CIA World Factbook)

U.S. Trade with Japan

Japan is one of the United State’s most important trade and investment partners. Bilateral U.S.-Japan trade in goods and services surpassed $300 billion in 2019, making it the United States' fourth largest trading partner, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Exports of goods to Japan were $74.7 billion, while imports were $143.6 billion. Exports of services to Japan were $48.7 billion versus $36.0 in imports. Exports to Japan represent 4.5% of overall U.S. exports.

In the past several years, Japan has been one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in the U.S. market, totaling $484 billion in 2018. These investments support U.S. jobs and contribute to U.S. economic output and exports.

Top U.S. Exports to Japan

According to the U.S. Trade Representative, the top U.S. export categories to Japan in 2019 by two-digit Harmonized System numbers were:

  • Mineral fuels: $9.3 billion
  • Aircraft: $8.8 billion
  • Optical and medical instruments: $7.1 billion
  • Machinery: $7 billion
  • Electrical machinery: $4.6 billion

In 2019, U.S. agricultural product exports to Japan totaled $12 billion—the United States' fourth-largest agricultural export market. Leading export categories include corn, beef and beef products, pork and pork products, soybeans, and wheat.

Exporting to Japan: The Challenges

Fortunately for exporters interested in exporting to Japan, there are very few trade barriers to overcome. The U.S. International Trade Administration’s (ITA) Country Commercial Guide for Japan identifies a few, including:

  • Cultural barriers, including Japanese/English language barriers, expectations for quality and customer service, and relationship issues and expectations among partners and distributors.
  • Regulatory barriers, including licensing requirements, restricted goods, certifications, labeling requirements and more.

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Exporting to Japan: The Opportunities

While the aging Japanese population may be seen by some as a drag on the economy, it presents a great opportunity for U.S. exporters in fields such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices and equipment, healthcare facilities and infrastructure, and robotics. Other fast-growing markets for export to Japan are advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and e-commerce.

A partnership with the U.S. may lead to opportunities in the defense, security and space industries. According to the ITA, “Japan is a leading importer of U.S. aerospace and defense equipment and, increasingly, an integrated codeveloper. Related growth sectors include defense procurement, advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity solutions.”

Rules and Regulations in Japan

Deciphering Japanese rules and regulations for exporting may be frustrating in the least and, at worst, cause issues that force an exporter to stop trade to the country completely. There are ways to combat these issues when exporting to Japan:

  • Work closely with your local U.S. Commercial Service office. They will link you to offices in Japan that will help you establish your presence and assist you through difficulties you may face.
  • The U.S. Department of Commerce's Advocacy Center can help with early stages of your project.
  • Find partners who have experience working with Japan. Your freight forwarder and banker should have documented experience working with the country.

Export Assistance

The best thing about exploring export opportunities in Japan is knowing you don’t need to go it alone. You can rely on assistance from your in-country allies, including the U.S. Commercial Service office, trade missions and chambers of commerce.

U.S. Commercial Service Offices

One of the first places to consider are your local and in-country U.S. Commercial Service offices. The Commercial Service in-country offices offer U.S. exporters business partners in Japan—boots on the ground in the country—and include representation by an agent, distributors or partners who will provide essential local knowledge and contacts that may be critical for your success. You can learn more about in-country offices in our article, Tapping into the U.S. Commercial Service's In-Country Offices.

District Export Councils (DECs)

DECs across the country may help exporters by supporting trade and services that strengthen individual companies, stimulate U.S. economic growth and create jobs. DEC members also serve as mentors to new exporters and provide advice to smaller companies.

Trade Missions

Sponsored by state and local trade offices as well as commercial service offices, trade missions are a great way to get introduced to and network with contacts. Check into them.

International Trade Administration (ITA)

The ITA is an excellent resource to help you combat problems. Staff at the ITA are resident experts in advocating for U.S. businesses of all sizes. They customize their services to help solve your trade dilemmas as efficiently as possible. If you find yourself caught in an unfair international trade situation, the ITA is a valuable resource that may expeditiously help you understand and solve your problems. The ITA makes it easy to report a problem by submitting your report online.

U.S.-Japan Chambers of Commerce

Chambers of commerce may be a way to help you when exporting to Japan. Learn more about various chambers in our article, The Chamber of Commerce Role in Exporting.

Tips for Entering the Japanese Market

  • The use of the Japanese language is critical to success in Japan. Marketing in Japanese is essential to communicate with local consumers and business customers; labeling requirements for many products are specified by government regulation and must be in Japanese. Japanese business people will appreciate efforts made to communicate in even basic Japanese.
  • Be respectful of Japanese culture. This is not only useful, it is largely required of those wanting to export to Japan successfully. Japanese society is complex, structured, respectful of age, hierarchical and group-oriented. Gift-giving is expected in business situations, and it's important to take a long-term approach to business relationships founded on high expectations of excellence in product and service quality.

Export Document Requirements for Japan

When exporting to Japan, documentation and procedures are critical. According to the ITA, having a local representative in Japan and/or working with a freight forwarder or customs specialist may be extremely helpful in this regard.

Documents you need to export to Japan will vary depending on your products, but they include:

  • Japanese import license for hazardous materials, animals, plants, perishables, and in some cases, articles of high value.
  • Import Declaration Form (Customs Form C-5020).
  • A certificate of origin if the goods are entitled to favorable duty treatment determined by preferential or WTO rates. In practice, shipments from the United States are routinely assessed using WTO or “temporary” rates without a certificate of origin. Any additional documents necessary as proof of compliance with relevant Japanese laws, standards and regulations at the time of import may also apply.
  • Bill of lading
  • Commercial invoice
  • Packing List
  • Sales contract
  • Proforma invoice
  • AES filing
  • Customs declaration
  • Insurance policy

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Export Compliance Issues When Exporting To Japan

It’s important to understand the regulations covering exports to Japan. You must be concerned with complying with export regulations no matter where you ship, but, fortunately, understanding regulations is easier to do than, say, if you were exporting to China.

This doesn’t mean you can take export compliance lightly. You need to understand what is required of you and what you risk if you don’t do your job in complying with those regulations.

Product Classification for Export Controls

The first step in ensuring export compliance is determining who has jurisdiction over your goods: the U.S. Department of Commerce under the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) or the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC).

If they fall under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department, which most products do, you must determine if your export requires authorization from the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), which is part of the Commerce Department. You need to answer the following questions:

  • What is the ECCN of the item?
  • Where is it going?
  • Who is the end user?
  • What is the end use?

To do that, you must know how to determine the correct classification of your item, also known as determining the Export Control Classification Number (ECCN). The ECCN is different from the HTS or Schedule B classification of your goods. We explain these differences in our article, Export Codes: ECCN vs. HS, HTS and Schedule B.

By making sure your product is classified correctly, you’ll be protecting the U.S. from threats abroad and protecting yourself from severe fines, penalties and even jail time.

Export License Determination

There are several reasons the U.S. government prevents certain exports to Japan without an export license. Companies must use the ECCN codes and reasons for control described above to determine whether or not there are any restrictions for exporting their products to specific countries. Once they know why their products are controlled, exporters should refer to the Commerce Country Chart in the EAR to determine if a license is required.

Download the free white paper: How to Determine If You Need an Export License

Although a relatively small percentage of all U.S. exports and re-exports require a BIS license, virtually all exports and many re-exports to embargoed destinations and countries designated as supporting terrorist activities require a license. These countries are Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria. Part 746 of the EAR describes embargoed destinations and refers to certain additional controls imposed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department.

The Shipping Solutions Professional export documentation and compliance software includes an Export Compliance Module that will use the ECCN code for your product(s) and the destination country and tell you if an export license is required. If indicated, you must apply to BIS for an export license through the online Simplified Network Application Process Redesign (SNAP-R) before you can export the products.

There are export license exceptions, such as low-value or temporary exports, that allow you to export or re-export, under stated conditions, items subject to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) that would otherwise require a license. These license exceptions cover items that fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce and not items that are controlled by the State Department or some other agency.

Deemed Exports

Surprise! You May Be an Exporter without Even Knowing It! A sometimes overlooked compliance issue for exporting to Japan is deemed exports, or exporting without shipping a product. A deemed export occurs when technology or source code (except encryption and object source code, which is separately addressed in the EAR under 734.2(b)(9)), is released to a foreign national within the United States.

Sharing technology, reviewing blueprints, tours of facilities and other disclosures of information are considered potential exports under the deemed export rule and should be handled accordingly. Learn about how to apply this principle here.

Restricted Party Screenings

Restricted party lists (also called denied party lists) are lists of organizations, companies or individuals that various U.S. agencies—and other foreign governments—have identified as parties that one can’t do business with.

There are several reasons why a person or company may be added to a restricted party list. For example, they may be a terrorist organization or affiliated with such an organization, they may have a history of corrupt business practices, or they may otherwise pose a threat to national security.

Restricted party screening (or denied party screening) refers to the process in which a company checks a potential customer or business partner against one or more of the restricted party lists to ensure they are not doing business with a restricted party.

The primary restricted party lists in the United States are published by the Department of Commerce, Department of State and Department of Treasury. However, several other agencies also produce lists. These agencies recommend that companies perform restricted party screening periodically and repeatedly throughout the movement of goods in the supply chain.

When exporting to Japan, it’s imperative you check every single restricted party list every time you export.

  • Fines for export violations can reach up to $1 million per violation in criminal cases.
  • Administrative cases may result in a penalty amounting to the greater of $250,000 or twice the value of the transaction.
  • Criminal violators may be sentenced to prison for up to 20 years, and administrative penalties may include denial of export privileges.

Export Documentation and Compliance Software

If you’re an exporter who is considering exporting to Japan, consider this: Shipping Solutions export documentation software will help you quickly create the necessary documents and stay compliant with export regulations. Click here to register for a free online demo of the software.


This article was first published in October 2017 and has been updated to include current information, links and formatting. It is one in a series of articles exploring exporting to specific countries across the globe, including Canada, China, India, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

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