The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Those requiring a certain action of the Japanese govern­ment when starting or expanding a business must learn a special term: sontaku. This word means the proactive—and sometimes inappropriate—anticipation of a person’s wishes without having received direct orders. Without a proper understanding of sontaku, one would miss the key points of recent controversies surrounding Japan’s policymaking process and, more importantly, the challenges that face business–government relations.

Sontaku has been frequently referenced in Diet sessions during which two scandals involving the education sector were discussed. In both cases, it is alleged that private connections with top government officials led to unfair privileges for certain schools. It is believed that the corresponding ministries skipped due process because of invisible pressure from “somebody up there”—another way of describing sontaku.

When such scandals are exposed—even if the accusations are untrue—there can be devastating consequences for both the business and government officials involved. 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 involving a limited number of stakeholders, or through personal connections with government officials.

Regulatory changes, however, have made it difficult for politicians to interact with private businesses—a practice that easily leads to closed and murky decision-making. The recent rise of public opinion against sontaku is a clear demonstration that Japanese society is no longer tolerating such processes. Instead, people are 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 change existing regulations that may create obstacles. In some cases, the necessary regulations to ensure the safety of a product or service may not exist. Marketing without first ensuring that the appropriate regulations are in place garners negative attention from media, the public, and related business organizations.

Moreover, lobbying for a policy change that only profits a single company or organization will merely spark criticism and outrage. To be accepted, policy proposals must solve existing social issues and involve a decision-making process that is both transparent and objective.

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, but a strategy called public affairs that can be distinguished by the following points:

  1. It must be a solution to social issues, in the best interest of the public.
  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 with 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 |