Following an extensive nomination process, Asia Business Law Journal reveals the A-List of Japan’s legal profession. Lim Miran and Mithun Varkey report
With the receding pandemic, Japan – the world’s third-largest economy – is on the mend and poised for a rebound. Reopening its doors to tourists, after remaining shut for nearly two years, will give a much-needed boost to a beleaguered tourism industry and should kick-start an economic revival.
The export sector is meanwhile seeing double-digit growth with a 12.5% year-on-year rise in April bolstering a 14.7% surge the previous month. There is still some way to go, with GDP shrinking by more than an annualised 1% in the first quarter of this year, against 4.6% growth in the previous quarter.
The Russia-Ukraine war has also put a dampener on hopes for a speedier turnaround, while in April the yen slid to its lowest level in 20 years, more than 130 against the US dollar. However, the government has proposed a JPY1.17 trillion (USD8.69 billion) budget to spend on mitigating the effect of rising global oil prices, including subsidising gasoline wholesalers.
The pandemic has also knocked Japan off its perch as the world’s largest outbound investor, but the nation remains among the top ranked, and with a revival on the cards it may recapture the top spot soon.
Aiming to drive the economy while also reducing social disparities, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently declared that a government-led panel has “put together a grand design for a new capitalism”.
The plan calls for more investment in human capital and greater support for innovation and startups, as well as efforts to decarbonise and digitalise the economy. Coupled with a strategy to develop Tokyo as an international financial hub, these new initiatives are creating more opportunities for law firms, both domestic and international.
On the legal front, Japan is working towards internationalising. More and more, Japanese law firms have sought to open offices internationally – and the country’s “big four” firms in particular are pushing forward to become regional leaders.
In the past couple of years, Japan has also eased restrictions on foreign lawyers by: expanding the range of international arbitration cases in which foreign lawyers are permitted to act; reducing the overseas work experience requirement for qualification as a registered foreign lawyer; and enabling the formation of joint corporations comprising both Japanese-qualified lawyers and registered foreign lawyers.
Amid hopes of a steady economic recovery, a rebound in deal activity and greater internationalisation, we bring our annual A-List of the top 100 lawyers practising in Japan – including foreign legal consultants, advisers and counsel (a list of all 100 lawyers and key practice areas for which they are endorsed follows).
The list is based on extensive research conducted and nominations received from in-house counsel based in Japan and elsewhere, and Japan-focused partners at international law firms based outside the country. Notably, but perhaps not surprisingly, more than 50% of the top 100 come from the country’s “big four” firms – Nishimura & Asahi; Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu; Mori Hamada & Matsumoto; and Anderson Mori & Tomotsune.
The rest are from an interesting mix of large domestic firms and top international firms. It should be no surprise that most of the A-Listers are based in Tokyo, the country’s capital and financial hub, close to their biggest clients as well as the regulators.
The key aspect that sets apart good lawyers from great lawyers is their focus on clients’ needs. While sound legal knowledge is imperative, it is equally important to offer counsel tailored to the specific requirements of clients and their businesses. Good communication skills, as can be seen from the comments provided, are also highly valued by clients.
As one of our respondents pointed out, clients appreciate it when lawyers go “an extra mile to understand the clients’ requirements”. Akira Ehira, a Tokyo-based partner at Mori Hamada & Matsumoto, is one such lawyer who blends legal expertise and client focus.
Masaki Sugawara, managing director of Swiss private bank J Safra Sarasin in Hong Kong, commends Ehira for his “deep knowledge and experience in finance and high ability to show a degree of risks for various options to support the client’s best business decision”.
Ehira’s focus is on banking, structured finance and derivatives, as well as financial regulations and compliance, and he excels in both domestic and international financing transactions. Ehira “provides advice that goes beyond legal theory, giving clients peace of mind and encouraging business,” says one of his clients who preferred not to be named.
Makio Yamada, executive director of Topaz Capital in Tokyo, says: “Ehira is very knowledgeable about the actual business of the fund and has given us sound advice when we have had irregularities.”
Anderson Mori & Tomotsune’s Tokyo-based partner Tomoki Debari is another who has earned a name for his top-class legal advice, as well as the ability to exceed client expectations.
Charunun Sathitsuksomboon, a partner at Thailand-based Tilleke & Gibbins in Bangkok, says: “I have worked with Debari on a few M&A deals and his expertise is outstanding. He really understands the complexities of each case and advises clients in a practical and pragmatic manner – his approach really helps make deal closing a success for our shared clients.
“He’s also very responsive, even after work hours, and his passion and dedication to his clients are admirable. In short, he is a pleasure to work with and I know that our clients’ matters are in safe hands with him.”
Debari principally focuses on insurance, banking, securities and asset management issues, as well as M&A projects involving insurance companies and other financial institutions.
Mangyo Kinoshita, a founding partner at Japanese boutique law firm Southgate, is also commended by his clients for his ability to “understand the client’s business well”, “give flexible and well-balanced advice” and “think out of the box”.
Toshinori Uneki, head of legal at Japanese online fashion retailer ZOZO in Tokyo, says: “Kinoshita is quick to understand the client’s intentions and needs, and quick and precise in his judgement. He is responsive to the legal and knowledge level of the client, and provides the necessary input and follow-up without embarrassing the client.”
Kinoshita, who was formerly at White & Case before founding Southgate in 2016, “has a good eye for people”, says Uneki, while noting that “although the firm is expanding, all the new members have excellent abilities and personalities”.
Kinoshita focuses primarily on cross-border and domestic M&A, joint ventures, strategic alliances, private equity and venture capital issues.
Seishi Ikeda, who heads the real estate group in Baker McKenzie’s Tokyo office, is recognised by his clients for “good commercial awareness” and his “responsiveness to his clients”.
Norihiro Matsushita, head of Japan for Australian data centre company AirTrunk in Tokyo, says: “[Ikeda] was our attorney and played an active role. He gave us sound advice.”
Others recommend Ikeda for his expertise in real estate and ability to “address issues unique to foreign companies”.
Legal acumen is what clients pay for, and some of the lawyers on our list have pushed themselves to the very pinnacle of their chosen fields to often be an automatic choice for clients seeking specialist advice.
Hiroyuki Tezuka, who heads Nishimura & Asahi’s international dispute resolution practice, is described as a “highly respected arbitration lawyer with extensive knowledge of international arbitration”. His expertise has earned the respect of clients internationally.
Francis Xavier, partner and regional head of dispute resolution group at Rajah & Tann Singapore, says: “He is very knowledgeable and well regarded internationally.”
Kevin Kim Kap-You, a dispute resolution expert and senior partner at Korean law firm Peter & Kim in Seoul, also recommends Tezuka as a “well-known arbitration expert – very practical and experienced with good knowledge and strategy”.
Tezuka, who is also deputy chief director of the Japan International Mediation Centre in Kyoto and vice president of the Japan Association of Arbitrators, has represented many international clients. He has been a member of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre’s Court of Arbitration and is also a member of the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration.
Dispute resolution specialist Yoshimi Ohara, of Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu, is one of Japan’s top arbitration experts, say her clients. She has been a partner at the firm since 2008, focusing on international arbitration, international complex litigation and mediation.
Ohara is “one of my go-tos for arbitration in Japan”, says Christopher Boog, partner and vice-chair of the international arbitration practice group at Swiss law firm Schellenberg Wittmer in Zurich.
Han Sang-Wook, a senior attorney at Kim & Chang in Seoul who specialises in IP and Japan matters, says: “Ohara has handled a wide range of domestic and overseas IP matters in a variety of business sectors. She has been contributing to the development of international arbitration practices through IBA [International Bar Association] activities.”
As an arbitrator, Ohara has a strong corporate and IP background, with extensive experience in dealing with a wide range of disputes including joint ventures, M&A, energy, construction, technology transfer, IP, shipping, and sales and distribution.
Eiji Katayama, partner and chairman of Abe Ikubo & Katayama, is renowned for his expertise in IP and bankruptcy law.
“Katayama is well-known as an expert in insolvency law,” says Jay Yang Young-June, an attorney at Korean law firm Kim & Chang in Seoul. “He was involved in patent litigation cases relating to cutting-edge technologies including biotechnology and semiconductors in various fields of chemistry, electricity and machinery. He also handled numerous international cases involving multiple jurisdictions.”
Katayama has appeared in several notable cases including reorganisations of Japan Airlines, Azabu, Tsuchiura, Riccar, Maruko, Muramoto Construction and Hokke Club, as the trustee or deputy trustee, and handling the liquidation case of Yamaichi Real Estate as bankruptcy trustee. He has also filed corporate reorganisation cases for debtors including Daiichi Hotel, Chiyoda Mutual Life Insurance and Kyoei Life Insurance.
Mitsuko (Mimi) Miyagawa, an IP expert at TMI Associates in Tokyo, is another specialist much sought after by clients. Over nearly three decades at the firm she has represented some of the biggest names in the business.
Han Sang-Wook, of Kim & Chang, says: “Miyagawa has varied experience in IP litigation including in the areas of copyright, trademark, unfair competition and design. She is a very competent lawyer in the field, client-oriented in her thinking, and knows exactly what the clients need.”
Maya Ito, a partner at Nishimura & Asahi, is highly regarded for her restructuring practice. She has extensive experience acting on cross-border project finance transactions and expertise in cross-border compliance, financing transactions and corporate transactions representing large Japanese and international companies.
Yamada, of Topaz Capital, says: “Ito is very experienced in corporate restructuring projects and can make sound judgments.”
As one of the world’s biggest economies and home to some of the largest business houses in the world, Japan is often at the centre of landmark global deals.
Experience and knowledge handling international matters are therefore essential for law firms in Japan. While there are notable Japanese lawyers who have carved out a space for themselves, some international lawyers practising in Japan have also built a formidable reputation for their ability to navigate the nuances of cross-border transactions and advise on laws in overseas jurisdictions.
Japan, however, does not allow foreign lawyers to practise Japanese law, which means international lawyers have to register themselves as gaikokuho jimu bengoshi (registered foreign lawyers).
Keiji Hatano, the managing partner of US firm Sullivan & Cromwell’s Tokyo office, is one such gaikokuho jimu bengoshi, widely regarded among foremost Japanese experts on New York state and US federal law.
Considered an “industry leading” lawyer in US law, he is recommended by clients for his “outstanding performance in overall corporate legal and regulatory matters”, especially in capital markets, M&A and other strategic alliance areas.
His expertise on the US Financial Regulation Act, and quick response and ability to deliver short-term requests are valued by his Japanese clients.
“Hatano has provided qualified and careful advice on US securities law,” says Yasushi Kojima, deputy general manager, legal, for Takeda Pharmaceutical in Tokyo.
Alan Cannon, a partner in American law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett’s corporate department, is a capital markets expert relied on and sought after by some of the biggest names in the country for his “knowledge of US securities law”.
Surendra Singh Chandrawat, managing partner of Hong Kong-based law firm Chandrawat & Partners, says: “Alan has extensive experience in advising Japanese and international financial institutions on a wide range of capital markets transactions.”
Cannon, who has been in Tokyo since 1998, acts for clients on a range of capital market transactions including securities offerings registered in the US, global IPOs by Japanese issuers, and other international corporate finance transactions. He is also active in cross-border M&A, advising both principals and financial advisers.
David MacArthur, a senior foreign counsel at Anderson Mori & Tomotsune and co-head of the firm’s international arbitration practice, has become quickly renowned as a leading international dispute resolution specialist in Japan. MacArthur worked at the Korean law firm Bae Kim & Lee from 2006, before moving to the Japanese firm in 2020.
“My company has instructed MacArthur for a major arbitration case and we were particularly impressed with his solid expertise in arbitral procedures, case analytical skills and legal knowledge,” says Chung Insu, a senior counsel for leading South Korean chaebol conglomerate Hyundai Heavy Industries in Seoul.
“He was thoughtful, well detailed, smart and client-friendly, with an excellent understanding of the client’s business and commercial nature.”
Harold Chang, the chief financial officer of semiconductor company Silicon Mitus in Gyeonggi, South Korea, says: “David is an energetic and conscientious lawyer who enjoys his work and enjoys representing his clients.”
Braden Billiet, senior managing director for FTI Consulting in Seoul, says: “He is a well-known figure in the arbitration community in East Asia. While I have not personally worked with him, I know he worked on a number of important cases during his time at Bae Kim & Lee.”
Mark Davies, a partner in the US firm King & Spalding’s corporate, finance and investments practice based in Tokyo, is especially highly regarded for his energy and infrastructure expertise.
“Mark has played a key role in our commercial negations with wind turbine suppliers,” says John Popham, general manager at Japan Wind Development in Tokyo. “He is an excellent projects lawyer who understands the wind business. Moreover, he has first-class negotiating skills and has helped us greatly in finalising agreements.”
Mohan Thiruvengadam, a strategy officer for offshore wind at Japanese renewable company Influx in Tokyo, says: “Mark has helped us in various areas of our business, such as onshore wind development, JV deals, offshore wind bid preparation, contracting and negotiations, corporate financing and capital injection.
“His domain knowledge and experience in the Japanese business environment, along with a solution-oriented approach and swift turnaround time, are some of his best qualities we rely on.”
Compiling the A-List
The A-List is based on extensive research conducted by Asia Business Law Journal. To identify the top 100 lawyers in Japan, we turned to thousands of in-house counsel in Japan and around the world – as well as partners at international law firms – and asked them to tell us which lawyers should make the cut, and why.
Nominations were made by professionals at a wide range of Japanese and global companies, financial institutions and law firms, including: NTT Docomo, 39 Essex Chambers, AirTrunk Japan, Bae Kim & Lee, J Safra Sarasin, Bank of Utah, BofA Securities, British Petroleum, Broadmedia Corporation, Chandrawat & Partners, Citi, Clifford Chance, CMS Germany, Covington & Burling, DAI Global, Debevoise & Plimpton, Deloitte, Deutsche Securities, Duxton Hill Chambers, Frasers Law Company, FTI Consulting, Herzog Fox Neeman, the HKIAC, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Influx, Inpex, Ito En, JSA, Japan Wind Development, the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board, Kim & Chang, King & Spalding, Lee & Ko, LNT & Partners, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking Corporation, Nippon Steel, Nomura, Pearl Cohen, Peter & Kim, Posco International, Rajah & Tann, SS Rana & Co, Schellenberg Wittmer, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, Shin & Kim, Silicon Mitus, Singapore Management University, Sompo Light Vortex, Takeda Pharmaceutical, Tanner De Witt, Tilleke & Gibbins, Topaz Capital, VF Corporation, Vodafone, Volvo Group, WongPartnership, Yoon & Yang, Yulchon, Zhong Lun Law Firm, ZOZO and many more. Thorough editorial research followed the nomination process.
The final list reflects the nominations received combined with the Asia Business Law Journal editorial team’s extensive experience in documenting and analysing the legal market in Asia. All Japanese private practice lawyers and foreign lawyers based in the country were automatically eligible for inclusion in the nominations process and, as always, there were no fees or any other requirements for entry.
The names and photographs of all 100 A-List lawyers are published on the pages that follow. In addition, each A-List lawyer was given the opportunity to include their biography and contact details, for which a publishing fee was charged.
It is important to note that while compilation of the A-List was based solely on independent editorial research, biographies and contact details that appear alongside many of the listings have been written by the participating lawyers, and the content has not been independently verified by Asia Business Law Journal.