Story Time: Post Conference Entertainment in Japan

Business trips often include entertainment. An annual conference and entertaining our #1 customer led to some interesting implications

Story Time: Post Conference Entertainment in Japan

My early career was spent in providing product management cover for instruments that were used in the photo-lithography process primarily in the semiconductor manufacturing space. We built instruments that characterized the features on photomasks that were used in steppers to "print" patterns in photoresist that then are used to etch or deposit films and patterns that make chips work.

Part of the job was to present at conferences, and to visit companies who make chips to sell our gear.

One conference that I went to every year was Photomask Japan. It was an annual event that was in a really nice event center in Tokyo, and we usually had a paper that I would present in the main session. Truth is we would ghost-write a paper with either a captive mask shop, or with a major manufacturer. One year, I presented on data we generated with the largest semiconductor maker in the world[^1], and we usually also co-authored papers with Dupont or Photronics, two of the merchant shops.

What I am saying is that this was one of the biggest events of the year for us. 1998 was the first year I attended, and it became a must attend.

The company I worked with at the time, we had two product families that were tailored to the production of photomasks. Our product was a highly optimized electron microscope that was tailor built to image chrome on glass masks to make extremely accurate determination of the lines and spaces that would print on the mask. The other group was focused on inspecting the masks for defects, and helping to understand if a mask would print superior fidelity images on the devices[^2].

Our business in photomasks was small (like 5 instruments per year at about $1.8M a pop) whereas the other group sold like 30 units per year at prices of between $5M - $10M a pop. This will be important later.

Post conference night out

Our largest customer for both of our businesses was a single merchant mask shop. I am hesitant to name them, but they were the bulk of our business, and thus they were very important to our business. Like without them, we probably would have shut down that product line.

They were also frequent research partners, and we co-authored many papers with their R&D team. It was a really good group of people, and at this conference in Tokyo, we would take their people out for an evening of entertainment.

This meant dinner, and then the afters[^3]. For dinner, it was usually 4 or 5 of us (the vendor) and 5-7 of them (the customer). The first time I attended, we did dinner in a high-end restaurant, and then the afters was a "gentleman's club." Both venues were in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, a place popular with ex-pats, and optimized to extract cash from corporate visitors who are on an expense account.

The dinner was in a semi-fancy yakitori house, and between the food and drinks for 13 people, the total bill was about the equivalent of $3,500. When the bill came, I plopped down my corporate AmEx card, and picked it up, while keeping my cringe hidden. I was relatively new to the product management world, and this was my first rodeo. Still, I had names for all the attendees, and most importantly, a receipt.

After dinner, most of the people peeled off, leaving us with three of us, and two of the customer. The VP of R&D, and a chief research scientist. On our side, it ws me, a technical marketing engineer, and our account manager for this customer.

Now, as I mentioned the destination was a "Gentleman's Club"[^4]. If you walk down a main drag in Roppongi, there are touters everywhere trying to get you to come up to their exclusive club. The place is lousy with them.

I got the impression that our account manager had a specific place in mind, so I followed along[^5]. I no longer remember the name of the place, but it was a nice place. The music wasn't too loud (think the Bada Bing from The Sopranos - it was a lot less obnoxious) and they specialized in "western" women[^6]. They liked us, because we spoke English, and most of the girls came from Australia or New Zealand.

So, some things to keep in mind:

  1. The girls were dancers, so to keep them nearby, you had to "tip" them. Now, in Japan, the smallest paper currency was a 1,000 yen note. At the time, that was about $10. You could buy "vouchers" to use to stuff into their G-strings, but they were about $5 worth of currency. Yikes, that is expensive

  2. The drinks were expensive, and they preferred cash. The concept of a "tab" was not common in Japan at the time.

  3. Speaking of the cost of drinks, at the time - the late 1990s - credit cards were not widely used in Japan. So you needed to have huge wads of cash. I used to carry near $1K US worth when I traveled. Because, a Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Nagano could cost $600 round trip. IN CASH. YOu had to be ready for it. Oh, and if you have an ATM card, there was like 2 machines in the entire city that were part of the network. Major pain in the arse.

By the end of the night, for the 4 or 5 of us, the total out of pocket easily was close to $5K from the club.

But, since I picked up dinner (and had a receipt) the account manager would cover the rest.


Upon my return to the office, I would diligently fill out my expense report. Like the day I hit the ground. Especially since most of te transactions for he day-to-day expenditures was cash, and the longer I would wait the more likely it was that I would forget a transaction.

When I handed it to my boss, he asked what he always asked, "Are there any charges here I will be surprised by?" And I told him about the evening of entertainment, and that I had opted to pick up the meal portion, and left the "adult entertainment" to the account manager.

He told me that I had chosen wisely.

I made that same choice every year I attended that conference.

[1]: 5 letters begins with an 'I', one guess...

[2]: at the time this was akin to using a satellite to "photograph" all the roads in the US, and then comparing the image to an accurate road atlas of the US, in about 45 minutes. Today, it is even more ridiculous of an analysis.

[3]: If you recall the tech sales environment of the 80's, 90's, and early aughts, you can probably guess what that entailed.

[4]: A.k.a. A strip club.

[5]: I am not really a fan of strip clubs. They serve watered down drinks, the girls are paid to be friendly, and unless you are tipping heavily, or buying access to the VIP room, it isn't really special. But a LOT of my peers were hugely into them, even going to places like the Pink Poodle or the Brass Rail, two local south Bay clubs for lunch. Me? They are meh, and not something I look for or patronize unless I have to.

[6]: Apparently, this is a specialty for certain Japanese business men