The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

We are living in a time of great change, driven in part by the coronavirus pandemic but even more by shifting expectations of how society should function and growing con­cerns about the future. Bringing together policymakers and the business community is more important than ever, and many people believe doing so in Japan is extremely difficult. But GR Japan President and CEO Jakob Edberg and Managing Director Philip Howard have built a government relations power­house over the past decade that has successfully bridged the gap to create win–win outcomes. To mark their anniversary, The ACCJ Journal talked to the two co-founders about the growth of their com­pany and 10 years of helping businesses in Japan with government relations.

What is GR Japan?
Edberg: Basically, we are what the name says: we do govern­ment relations in Japan. We chose this name to make that point very clear because, at the time we started, in 2010, it wasn’t such an obvious thing to do government relations here. But we thought that it was absolutely possible, so we chose the name GR Japan.

Howard: And over the past 10 years, we have become the leading and largest government relations company in Japan—possibly the entire Asia–Pacific region.

Where is your strongest area of expertise?
Edberg: We often get this question from potential clients. They want to see sectoral expertise, but we always say that our expertise is in the policymaking process itself. How does the government make policies? How are decisions made and regulations shaped?

Most people believe they are in a unique situation when they have a political or policy challenge, but often we have seen it before. We have a team of more than 50 people in Tokyo who have been involved in policymaking and political issues for a very long time. Through this collective knowledge, we know how the political machinery works, which strategies work and which do not, how to present a message, and how to deal with the government. That, in essence, is our core expertise.

On top of that, we have teams working on more technical matters. Once we get to know the client’s issues, we can always apply our government expertise to those, and it works very well.

With which sectors do you work?
Howard: We work across a wide range because, as Jakob said, really our expertise is in government decision-making, and, of course, that affects a very wide range of sectors. Right now, we are working most in areas of pharmaceutical and medical devices, energy and environment, consumer transportation and tourism, and technology—including IT, which has been growing very rapidly recently. We also have a good amount of work, I’m pleased to say, in the not-for-profit sector, with philanthropic foundations, campaigning non-governmental agencies, and other organizations outside the corporate sector; it’s a pretty wide range. One other aspect is working with those who require local government expertise in Japan, because a lot of power is devolved down to local governments here. We have a very, very strong local government team for prefectures and municipalities throughout the country.

How has GR Japan grown over a decade?
Howard: When we started 10 years ago, there were just the two of us—and there wasn’t really a government relations profession or practice in Japan. If anything, people believed that it couldn’t be done. But we’ve grown steadily every year—through thick and thin—and we now employ 60–70 people. Most are in Tokyo, but we also have offices in Osaka, Washington, DC, and, since two years ago, Seoul. We also have five people in Europe focused on London as well as representation in Australia. So, while we really have that focus on Japan, we’re able to get closer to our clients in other places.

GR Japan team

What is the secret of your success?
Edberg: First of all, I think it’s that we are really specialized. We work with policy and government relations, and we have built a company for that purpose. I believe this is really critical. To do government relations effectively, we must have specializations, and we have recruited people with those skills.

Second is that we are really passionate about what we do. When we interview people and hire new staff, I am always asked, “What is the requirement for the job?” This is because they notice that our staff come from various backgrounds and countries. I say that there’s only one absolute requirement: that you’re passionate about policy or politics.

Third is that, collectively, our team has several hundred years of knowledge and experience in dealing with policy issues in Japan. Specialization allows us to focus that knowledge and bring value to our clients in a very specific way. I think those are really the key reasons we have been successful.

Howard: One thing I would add is the power of diversity. The power of a diverse team comes not only from different nation­alities, but from diversity in every way imaginable. Even though there’s that common link—the passion for policy, politics, and government decision-making—there are many aspects even to that. We have people who are former Diet members, former senior officials, diplomats, people with legal qualifications and experience in local govern­ment as elected assembly members. I could go on. Everybody on the team brings something different, from the business sector, from civil society, from government itself. It’s the ability to harness all those types of people and expertise which is really key for us.

What is one outcome you’re particularly proud of?
Edberg: We really have thrived on the outcomes where we can see real change, ones that have a practical impact not just for our clients but also individuals in Japan.

What comes to mind first for me is the work we do in the health­care sector, where we really bring new technical solutions to dire needs and help patients gain access to the best international pro­ducts and treatments. Sometimes these projects don’t grab the newspaper headlines, but they result in policy or regulatory changes which really have an impact, of course on our clients but, more importantly, on the people who need those products.

One example is when we worked with the Osaka prefectural governor to secure free HIV testing for anyone in Osaka. This was such a great win–win for the progress of HIV treatment. It means that once you find HIV patients, you can basically keep them on medicines so the disease will stop spreading.

That will lead, of course, to saved healthcare costs and much better quality of life for the patient. This was such an important and significant result, and something that we are very proud of.

What difficulties have you had not being Japanese?
Howard: I think I would go for the opposite approach and say that being a foreigner in Japan—if you speak Japanese, if you know how the system works—can actually be a huge advantage.

And there is, in the Japanese government, a great openness to new ideas and international best practices. So, when we are working with our clients, we actually have something special to bring to the policymaking process, because we’ve got that access.

Politicians in Japan have a very, very small staff compared with those in the United States, and to be able to provide examples of what’s going on elsewhere—and have it properly thought out—can be a good service.

One of the things that was very satisfying for me, from our very first outreach meetings in Japan, was that our contributions were really welcomed by the government side, and they looked forward to seeing us and what we were working on. So, I wouldn’t see it as a huge disadvantage not to be Japanese. Of course, a majority of our staff is Japanese, and they have their own net­works and long-standing relationships, and that helps as well. When we need to have Japanese folk there for one reason or another, we can also do that.

What are some memorable moments of the past decade?
Edberg: There are so many things that come to mind. In the very beginning, when we were establishing GR Japan as a concept, we were putting a lot of effort into promoting dialogue between the public and private sectors.

In particular, I remember the many breakfasts that we orga­nized, mostly with politicians or other policymakers. One of the first breakfast meetings we had was with the party leader of Komeito, Natsuo Yamaguchi. At the time, we had just moved to our offices next to the National Diet Building. His security detail had to come and check the place beforehand, and they were wondering why the party leader would come to an office that had just two employees. It turned out to be a great event with a lot of questions.

Since then, we have hosted ministers and former prime ministers. We have hosted a lot of important people. But, in the very beginning, it was so obvious that this—a government rela­­tions process—is what was lacking, and people were assum­ing a lot of things about Japanese politics and not really interacting. That we were able to provide that platform—and make a business out of it—is really memorable.

Howard: I have gained a lot of satisfaction from working hand in hand with the Japanese government. There have been times when they have reached out to GR Japan to help when they’re drafting legislation to introduce new policies, because they recognize us as a voice that represents the international business community in Japan.

I remember when we worked for a long time on policies to promote renewable energy in Japan—something we were doing before the tragic events of March 2011 and the Fukushima disaster. It was hard work, and it felt as if we were pushing water uphill in those days. But when the events of March 11 occurred and there clearly needed to be radical changes to energy policy in Japan, we were in pole position.

Based on our clients’ deep understanding of what was going on abroad—and our deep understanding of the policy environ­ment in Japan—we could speak about the things Japan could do to promote renewable energy. We had the people holding the pen for the new legislation reaching out to us and asking: How do we do this? How do we do that? They worked together with us and our clients to come up with ideas. It was a great feeling of achievement that we could bring value to the discussion. That’s something that is certainly a good memory for me.

Where do you think you will be in 2030?
Howard: We have a vision, which is warmly embraced by our colleagues, to be the best government relations company in the world. It’s a modest ambition. It’s something that we aspire to. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we take over the world, but we’d like to be recognized as the best government relations company out there.

At the moment, I think what we are seeing is an expansion in the understanding among potential clients across different sectors—even outside the private sector—of the importance of interaction, and then really effective engagement, between government and other key stakeholders. In our next decade, I see a lot of growth as well as the mainstreaming of govern­ment relations as a profession and the recognition that it is a separate discipline. I hope that we can make that dialogue happen.

Edberg: I think being the best government relations company in the world is a very clear vision, and we need to always develop and move forward. We have set up a company in South Korea—GR Korea—because our clients asked us for support there similar to what they’ve got from us in Japan. And we have set up offices in Washington, DC to support our clients’ needs to engage effectively in the US–Japan dialogues. There are a lot of conversations happening in Washington that are important also for policy formulation in Japan. We basically go and do what we must to help our clients. That’s part of being the best government relations company in the world.

I think we are just scratching the surface of the potential need. As most readers are probably aware, the Japanese government plays a very active role in the economy. This trend is spreading around the world, maybe not because of Japan, but for many other reasons. As governments play a much more important role, it will be even more essential to engage all public-sector stakeholders and proactively communicate the value of the company.

We are in a world that is changing greatly, with regulations, rules, and government intervention becoming more and more critical and important. I believe that, in 10 years’ time, government relations as a service is going to be much more mainstream. It is going to be natural for every company to think professionally about how to deal with public policy and how to interact with the government. I’m confident that we will be in the midst of that in Japan, and, maybe, in other countries, if that’s where the demand is and where our clients want us to be.


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The power of a diverse team comes not only from different nation­alities, but from diversity in every way imaginable.