Japan has a robust independent legal market dominated by a handful of local brands. Attorneys at law—known as bengoshi—form the backbone of the country's legal community, while gaiben are lawyers from foreign countries licensed to practice law in Japan. A third category denotes foreign lawyers qualified under Japanese law.

The liberalisation of Japan’s legal sector has been a gradual and painstaking process, but it’s clear that over time increasing pressure alongside the socio-economic realities of globalisation are combining to supplant protectionist concerns.

Japan’s slowing economy, and decreasing and ageing population are well documented, and these realities are pushing Japanese companies to look outwards for consumers. This means that outbound investment and M&A continues to generate work for the foreign and domestic legal market. The geographical targets for Japanese buyers include India, South East Asia, China, the EU and the US. For example, this year Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda acquired Irish-headquartered Shire for $62 billion, which was the largest ever takeover carried out by a Japanese company.

Technology has always been an industry of particular interest for Japanese companies, and recent evidence of this predilection could be seen in the SoftBank Group’s $100 billion SoftBank Vision Fund. The fund was formed to invest globally in the technology sector, driven by the belief that the next stage of the information revolution is already underway.

Despite all this outbound talk, there have been initiatives to position Japan as a worthy inbound market and to stave off economic stagnation. Restrictions to entry for foreign entities are continually relaxed, with international companies gradually getting better at dealing with domestic companies and regulators. The country imposed negative interest rates on Japanese banks in a bid to encourage spending and weaken the yen. There was also an influx of investment—too much in fact—in renewable energy after the Fukushima disaster with longstanding solar and wind projects continuing to move through the phases of project development. The government’s scheme for privatising Japan’s airports continues to pick up pace with more and more airports making themselves available for privatisation; however, foreign investors must be sure that the opportunities are realistic as some of these airports are small and not well served by low cost carriers, which will need to stimulate foreign tourism to be viable.

Moreover, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics just around the corner, there are opportunities to kindle desire for tourism, and it may also bring with it further opportunities in sectors such as real estate, transport and infrastructure.

Finally, with regard to the firms themselves, the 'big four' moniker, including Anderson Mōri & Tomotsune, Mori Hamada & Matsumoto, Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu and Nishimura & Asahi, is being used less frequently. Now, the 'big five' is increasingly used to accommodate TMI Associates, which has grown rapidly since its establishment.