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Japan's corporate culture continues to adapt to the regulatory requirements of an international market which places an unfamiliar emphasis on corporate governance and transparency, specifically with regards to disclosure obligations.

The recent reforms to Japan's employment law are one facet of this cultural shift. Prime Minister Abe's 'work style reform' restricts long working hours and seeks guarantees of equal pay for equal work, thereby improving wages for non-regular workers. Meanwhile, firms are noticing an uptick in employment disputes that increasingly revolve around harassment claims arising from allegations of abuse of power and bullying by senior team members.

Another illustration of a shifting corporate world can be found in the M&A space. Heavyweight Japanese companies such as Toshiba, Panasonic and Nissan recently illustrated their break from the tradition of only selling in situations of distress by disposing of non-core assets to foreign private equity funds which, historically, would have been a rare occurrence at best. This is one of the factors which led to a perceived uptick in inbound M&A work, another being the appeal of Japanese energy projects.

In the renewable energy space biomass and energy-from-waste prospects appear here and there, but they face too many logistical challenges to become as popular in other markets. Investors prefer to intervene in solar and offshore wind projects which currently saturate the market.

The pickup in the global oil and gas market is also noticeable in Japan where the banks – sometimes discouraged by the pressure of international environmental activism – back LNG and coal-fired plant projects with the blessing of the government. On the infrastructure side, the government's recent decision to privatise Japan's airports generated concession mandates such as the one for Kobe Airport for a handful of domestic and international law firms.

Where there are cross-border transactions there tends to be international dispute resolution work. This also plays a partial role in the 'tightening up' of the local corporate environment. Japanese companies are beginning to become more comfortable using litigation and international arbitration as legitimate business tools. This is mirrored by the government's eagerness to turn Tokyo into a top seat for international arbitration. 'Too little, too late', commented one partner who believed the state's efforts would not be able to trump the established popularity of Hong Kong and Singapore for such matters.

International law firms like Herbert Smith FreehillsKing & SpaldingMilbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, and Linklaters , along with Japan's 'Big Four' – Anderson Mori & TomotsuneMori Hamada & MatsumotoNagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu, and Nishimura & Asahi – find strong work highlights in the project and energy space where construction, contract and a variety of other disputes arise from the development of assets. And with several significant M&A deals in the pharmaceutical and medical devices space, both Japanese and international firms have the opportunity to showcase impressive intellectual property litigation capabilities.

The antitrust space, however, is comparatively less busy. The Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) has reportedly been noticeably passive on the cross-border front in past months but has made a point of announcing its resilience in attacking domestic cartels, particularly in the technology and electronics sector. This was clear in its recent move on Apple and Amazon. The longstanding landmark 'autoparts cartel' case has come to a standstill at the time of writing but the success enjoyed by one defendant as a result of its assertive stance against the US Department of Justice leads some to anticipate a change in attitude by other defendants.

Japan is no stranger to the host of legal questions that come with the 'ink stain' spread of new technologies across practice areas and lawyers are finding more and more demand for GDPR and data privacy expertise. Banking and financial experts, especially, are finding themselves exposed to such questions with the gradual introduction of innovative fintech projects in Japan. On the traditional banking front, the 'Big Four' still dominate the scene, leaving the large international firms to compete for leveraged financing deals such as Bain Capital's acquisition of Toshiba's memory flash business. As these are still scarce, firms pitch for more consistent work streams such as asset financing in the shipping and aviation sectors or project financing in the booming projects and energy sector.

Real estate financing also remains reliable in Tokyo's thriving market. Ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japanese lawyers are optimistic that the nation's capital will – like London – be an exception to the 'Olympic rule' which stipulates that real estate markets tend to slump in the years before and after the games. However, some confessed to fears of the bubble popping. Although high prices mean there is little transactional work, foreign investors nevertheless still see opportunities in the leisure and hospitality space. Low interest rates also make the J-REIT market a relatively doubtful affair but it remains stable at the time of writing.

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