Lobbying is the business of persuading politicians to listen to you.
Traditionally, lobbying politicians is a practice that was almost solely for businesses to engage in. If a business needs something from the government — to get a law changed or acquire financial assistance, for example, it lobbies politicians.
But like much else in Japan’s democracy, change is afoot in the world of lobbying.
Professional lobbyist Dan Harada, founder and partner of Tokyo-based Nagatacho Forum, which specializes in lobbying politicians on behalf of foreign companies and governments, sees a future where consumer groups get in on the persuasion act.
The power of consumer groups is a “growing but not well understood aspect of Japanese society,” Harada said in a recent interview.
Instead of going to the politicians when faced with a problem, companies, with the aid of the lobbyists, would instead address the consumer groups directly, the lobbyist said.
Companies will find that if they have a problem, often “it doesn’t originate from the bureaucrats, it originates from the consumers complaining. The consumer alerts the bureaucrats and the bureaucrats alert the politicians,” Harada said.
Nagatacho Forum has not dealt with consumer groups before, he said. “But this is one of the ways that we would be willing to go.”
Harada credits his firm’s newest partner, Daniel Lintz, a public affairs specialist who has had stints working for Sony and Visa International in Japan, with suggesting this new field of lobbying.
Lintz said having companies talk with consumers is “not so different” from talking to politicians. It is about building relationships before problems emerge.
“If you come running to the Nagatacho Forum and say I don’t like this law, it has gone to the Diet and it is being debated on the floor, it is too late,” Lintz said. “If you don’t like the fact that the consumer groups are screaming about your products and services, it is too late. The idea is the same, to start a relationship earlier when there are no problems and build trust.
“I think that the consumers’ biggest complaint is that they haven’t been consulted or informed.”
Genetically modified food is an example of the kind of problems consumer groups may have with companies that Nagatacho Forum perhaps could lobby to resolve, Lintz said.
While bringing such groups into the lobbying process is a new direction that Nagatacho Forum is still contemplating, other changes in the political system have already impacted the firm.
Harada said that under Japan’s old electoral system, under which members of the Diet were elected through multiseat constituencies, politicians were able to specialize in one area, such as health and welfare, and become something like experts in their chosen field. If a company wanted to lobby in that field, then it would know which politicians to approach.
But electoral reforms that started in the 1990s mean many lawmakers are now elected to the Diet through single-seat constituencies, a change that has impacted lobbying, Harada said.
A politician standing for election in a single-seat constituency has to be a “jack of all trades,” he said.
“He can’t only focus on health and welfare because he wouldn’t be re-elected.” The lawmaker must instead develop expertise in a range of different areas.
While having fewer experts in the halls of the Diet to lobby might seem to make the job of Nagatacho Forum more difficult, Harada said the change has in fact been quite beneficial.
If a company asks the firm to lobby lawmakers on its behalf, under the old electoral system, Nagatacho Forum might have “10 friends” familiar with the industry in question that it can turn to. But now the lobbyists could have “40 people who may be a little less knowledgeable” about the situation but who can be approached. It opens up a “spectrum of opportunities,” Harada said.
A naturalized Japanese citizen who assumed a Japanese name, the French-born Harada, 57, is well-versed in the intricacies of the Japanese political system. He has been engaged in lobbying Japanese politicians for more than 20 years, making use of his extensive contacts in the LDP.
Despite Nagatacho Forum’s adeptness at lobbying, and the presence of veteran political journalist Myoji Kado as a partner, the firm does not number Japanese companies among its clients.
Harada said that domestic companies traditionally rely on using their own staff for lobbying politicians, or worked through industry organizations.
As such, they have no need for Nagatacho Forum, which Harada believes is the only specialist political lobbying firm in Japan.
But foreign companies, no matter how well established they may be in Japan, do not have the understanding of domestic politics that Japanese firms have. Nagatacho Forum, therefore, provides the missing local knowledge and lobbying expertise, Harada said.
One service his firm offers is old-fashioned public relations.
“When somebody from the home office comes and he likes to have dinner or lunch with the politicians, (Nagatacho) Forum can arrange (it),” Harada said.
He said his firm also offers the “three Is” — information, influence and introductions.
The information aspect is two-way, he said. “A company can tell the legislator what its problem or its situation is and in return it is getting from the legislator some ideas (about) which way the legislation is going, how the government is thinking.”
“Influence” in essence is also about communication. “When there is a deadlock somewhere with bureaucrats, sometimes a phone call from above unleashes a situation,” Harada said.
By “introducing” the firm’s foreign clients to Japanese lawmakers, doors are opened to the clients that would otherwise be closed to them, such as government-funded research projects and access to universities, he said.
While Nagatacho Forum acts as a bridge between the lawmakers and clients, it does not argue their cases for them.
“Our strength is to be the bridge, to know who does what in (the Diet), and the client is far better qualified than we are to explain the issue,” Harada said.
It seems that the art of persuasion is as much about who you talk to as it is about what you say.