The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The most popular buzzwords of 2017 were revealed on December 1, and *sontaku*—which means the proactive, and sometimes inappropriate, anticipation of a person’s wishes without having received direct orders—topped the list for Japan. The announcement was made at the U-Can New Words and Buzzwords Awards, held by publishing house Jiyukokuminsha in partnership with education training services provider U-Can Inc.

*Sontaku* has been frequently used in Diet sessions during which two scandals involving the education sector were discussed. In these cases, accusations that private connections with top government officials led to unfair privileges have shed light on the considerable risks a business faces when engaging in private negotiations with the government.

In one case, a huge discount was allegedly given on the purchase of state-owned land. In another, political connections may have allowed the school to receive authorization for the establishment of a veterinary department. When such scandals are exposed—even if the accusations are untrue—there can be devastating consequences for both the business and government officials involved.

While conducting activities to influence policy in one’s favor is common in many countries, the process is different in Japan. In contrast with long-established tradition in places such as the United States and the European Union, the practice of lobbying in Japan does not garner the same level of recognition. Here, it has largely been conducted through behind-the-scenes negotiations (*chinjo*) involving a limited number of stakeholders. In other words, businesses could make use of personal connections with government officials to effect policy changes in their favor.

However, regulatory changes have made it difficult for politicians to interact with private businesses, a practice that easily leads to closed and murky decision-making. And the rise of media’s role in exposing dishonest conduct—and the public criticism that inevitably follows—is requiring policy decisions to be fair and beneficial to society.

For businesses looking to introduce new products and services in Japan, it is often necessary to seek changes to existing regulations that may create obstacles. In some cases, the necessary regulations to ensure the safety of a product or service may not yet exist. Conducting marketing without first ensuring that the appropriate regulations are in place garners negative attention from the media, public, and related business organizations. To be accepted, policy proposals must solve existing social issues and involve a decision-making process that is both transparent and objective.

Lobbying for a policy change that clearly only profits a single company or organization will merely spark criticism and outrage from media and the public. What is required of businesses is that they be an advocate for the policy changes that not only benefit themselves but, more importantly, also benefit society.

In fact, Japanese policymakers are eager to hear such input from businesses and the general public so that the policymaking process can be conducted more openly, and increased importance placed on promoting the public interest. To solve social issues effectively, businesses must now gain the support of outside specialists and academics while also sharing background information on the issue with media.

What is now required is not behind-the-scenes lobbying (old-fashioned *chinjo*), but a strategy called public affairs that can be distinguished by the following points:

  1. It must be a solution that interests the public and helps solve social issues.
  2. It must maintain transparency by revealing the decision-making process from the beginning stages.
  3. It must ensure third-party objectivity by partnering with academics when creating policy proposals.

The practice of public affairs is gaining traction, and has resulted in significant successes for a number of companies—especially those driving change in their respective markets. In Japan, the strategy is most effectively employed by the public affairs division of Vector Inc., the country’s largest public relations company. Well-versed in all forms of Japanese media, and able to utilize media in its lobbying strategies, Vector also cultivates relationships with specialists and academics to create policy proposals that originate from academia.

Vector, Inc. Public Affairs Division
No. 1 public relations company in Japan, boasting eight consecutive terms with a growth in profit of more than 25 percent. | 03-6825-3015 |