For many foreign companies doing business in Japan, it is essential to keep up to date with the myriad legislative, political and regulatory processes affecting their industry. But it is not always easy to figure out what’s going on and how regulatory changes impact their business.
GR Japan provides a range of services to help companies navigate these challenges in Japan. As well as expert advice, the company provides timely information and analysis on issues, including discussions within the Diet and political parties; provides tailored intelligence, research and analysis on specific regulatory and political issues; and helps clients to deliver persuasive arguments and data to government stakeholders to help them reach their business goals in Japan. The company also develops government outreach programs to help companies engage effectively with decision makers.
The managing director of GR Japan is Jakob Edberg. Born in Zaire, he grew up in Sweden, but for the past 15 years has been involved with Japanese politics and policy-making, as an academic, diplomat and representative of foreign industry in Japan. As Policy Director of the European Business Council, trade policy arm of the 17 European national Chambers of Commerce and Business Associations in Japan, Edberg managed and supervised the lobbying activities of over 300 member companies in 29 sector committees.
Japan Today catches up with Edberg at the GR Japan office in Kojimachi to hear more.
What brought you to Japan?
I came to Japan as an exchange student in 1995, after I completed my military service in Sweden. I was here one year and then went back. I returned to Japan on a Monbusho scholarship to study at Tsukuba University two years later. After completing a master’s, I joined the Swedish embassy, doing political and trade work for five years. Then I joined the European Business Council for five years as policy director, dealing with a host of regulatory and trade-related issues. Seeing what could and could not be done there gave me the idea for this firm which I co-founded in 2010. My business partner also had long experience of Japanese politics and policy-making and had the same vision as me of wanting to set up Tokyo’s first dedicated and professional government relations consultancy.
What are your main services?
We provide a range of public affairs and government relations services. That includes researching or monitoring regulatory discussions, often from the decision makers themselves, and helping our clients get the information that matters for their business.
That’s often where we start. But some come to us for a tailor-made outreach program, enabling them to have their say or to feed a specific point into the decision-making process. That works best when it’s backed up by stakeholder and issue mapping, so that our client knows how they fit in and where they can have the greatest impact. Our ideal way of working is long term with clients who need regulators to understand their business. It is not about asking for favors or short cuts, but working to educate both sides and to find policy solutions that are beneficial not just for regulators and clients but for society as a whole.
How do you market your company?
We don’t advertise, so most marketing is through word of mouth. We often lay on events for our contacts, including monthly breakfast meetings with senior politicians, such as ministers or vice ministers. Those occasions can also help in getting the word out and letting people know what we do.
How much information is available on the Internet these days?
A lot of information from policy councils is on the Internet, but it is raw material. It’s in Japanese of course, and you can easily get overloaded with information. Also what gets onto the Internet is far from the whole story. We tend to get consulted on specific laws and regulations that will impact on a client’s business but which probably don’t get a lot of public attention. Often those changes can be difficult to spot.
Political and regulatory information has a lot of bearing on business interests but many businesspeople aren’t familiar with how government works, and vice versa. The division between politics and business is getting blurred globally and it’s the same in Japan. Access to the right people is important – that’s one of our strengths. But more crucial is understanding how the system works and having experience of real-life policy-making. We have staff and advisers from all sides of the political spectrum as well as the bureaucracy, to help see issues from different angles.
Is access to decision-makers easier than it used to be?
Access has definitely become easier. There has been a long-term trend toward greater transparency because of the focus on policy. That has led to a greater role for Diet members. They have to be their own masters now instead of relying on their party or faction. With public opinion important too, they have to work harder on real issues and prove their own value. That contributes to increased opportunities for people outside the political world to engage – essential for anyone involved in “corporate diplomacy.”
On the other hand, the change of government in 2009 complicated the move toward transparent decision-making. When the DPJ took power, it was not used to governing and dismantled some of the mechanisms that made policy decisions in the past. The lack of a clear alternative structure made things less predictable. Public affairs professionals need to keep their eye on the ball at all times, so that is a challenge.
How is the decision-making process in Japan perceived?
Some people start with a perception that nothing in Japan moves. But for government relations professionals, Japan is not that different from any other country. When clients understand the dynamics of an issue and what’s going on behind the scenes, then they see how they can engage. On the micro side, there are a lot of changes going on which have a huge impact on individual businesses but which rarely make the headlines.
Did the March 11 disaster last year change anything?
Policy-making did change after the disaster, but not in the way people hoped. The external shock to the system actually made it more difficult to get decisions made – everybody was scared of making a mistake. We got a lot of inquiries from foreign companies but in the short term found it more difficult to get decisions made. Sadly, despite the attention being paid to Japan at that time, it wasn’t a great time to be trying something new.
Does GR Japan also do crisis management?
We call it that but it is really more about averting or managing regulatory threats. Regulations can change quickly and if you don’t pick up the signs, you can be out of your depth before you know it. Other times, clients need to get back on track and rebuild trust. We can help bridge the gaps in understanding between Japanese regulators and businesses – especially a faraway headquarters who don’t always grasp the sensitivities of dealing with Japanese government. Getting those things right can make a huge difference to a company’s ability to thrive in Japan.
Tell us about your team.
There is a core team of 10: five staff and five advisers. But we also use our network of experts who have knowledge of a specific ministry or sector, such as healthcare or financial services. We are big enough to have the bandwidth to fight several wars at once, but small enough to be able to move extremely quickly. We all have in-depth experience of the Japanese government, including a former METI vice minister, trade negotiator and party officials from the two main parties – the DPJ and LDP.