Lost in Translation

In Japan, a Deal That Was Hard to Swallow

Photographer: Greg Elms/Lonely Planet Images

Person holding a fugu (puffer) fish, soon to be prepared for dinner, in Tokyo, Japan. Close

Person holding a fugu (puffer) fish, soon to be prepared for dinner, in Tokyo, Japan.

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Photographer: Greg Elms/Lonely Planet Images

Person holding a fugu (puffer) fish, soon to be prepared for dinner, in Tokyo, Japan.

In some countries, a handshake isn't enough.

It was 2000, and Craig Elliott, then CEO of computer networking company Packeteer, was in Japan to land a huge contract with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.

Elliott, who used to work at Apple and has a photo of Steve Jobs giving him a Porsche as a sales prize, liked to think he knew how to close a deal.

But when the NTT executives invited him to dinner to recognize the partnership, the self-described "farm boy from Iowa" shuddered when he realized the main course was fugu, a poisonous pufferfish. Its meat is toxic if not prepared correctly, and Elliott was told that it was custom for the group to take a bite together, as a sign of commitment to each other and the deal.

Elliott took a bite, and his toes started to tingle. The sensation moved up his body, and he panicked.

"I turned to my country manager, who was Japanese, and said I can't feel my legs!" Elliott said.

His colleague's response: Relax. If he were poisoned, he'd be dead already.

Elliott was later told that the tingling was a result of ingesting a tiny amount of the fish's poison, and that it was part of the bonding experience.

"It really made me realize that doing business in other countries, it's as much about relationships as it is about technology," said Elliott, now CEO of a cloud-networking startup Pertino Inc. "They really wanted to know that the CEO was going to back them up on the deal."

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