“Public affairs is essential for any effectively working democracy”

The right partner

Langley Esquire connects businesses and policymakers


August 2020 Business Spotlight / Text by Toby Waters / Photos by Benjamin Parks

Edo Castle — the nexus of power of the Tokugawa Shogunate and now part of the Imperial Palace complex — was the site of political authority, as well as drama and upheaval, for five centuries. Today, at the edge of the former castle grounds stands Langley Esquire, a consulting company founded by Timothy Langley. Its location is a symbol of the firm’s work — linking lawmakers and the rest of society, in an ever-changing world.

Established in 2002, Langley Esquire specialises in public affairs, the practice of developing relations and fostering dialogue between organisations and government officials to facilitate the development of meaningful policies. It is a way for businesses to have their needs heard and for policymakers to receive consistent, expert guidance on complicated and cutting-edge issues.

“Public affairs is essential for any effectively working democracy,” Langley says. “Citizen groups, companies, corporations, trade associations — they all have a voice, and public affairs creates the bridge between these various groups and the policymakers. If you can’t give this input to bureaucrats — who are smart, but who aren’t specialists — they won’t understand the details and what the implications are for society.”

Public affairs is especially important for foreign businesses in Japan. The complexity of Japanese bureaucracy, along with the natural tendency for politicians here to prioritise domestic companies, means that foreign firms need an advocate with access to top-level decision makers in order to effect real change.

“It’s a tough place. Any firm that comes to Japan is going to deal with problems, sometimes problems that challenge their very existence in this country,” states Langley. “You have regulations, you have foreign tax credits, you have demerits, all of those things involve public policy. How do you address these? How do you make sure that you have a level playing field?”

It’s Langley’s record and his ability to bend the ear of national politicians, government ministers, and civil servants that make him particularly effective. After spending his formative years in Okinawa and graduating from Tohoku University’s School of Law, Langley was hired as an aide by Taro Nakayama, a member of the House of Councillors. As the first non-Japanese person to ever work in the National Diet, Langley developed a thorough understanding of the inner workings of the legislative process here — and an extensive list of contacts.

“I learned the ropes, worked on campaigns, travelled all over the country — and Nakayama eventually became foreign minister,” Langley says. “I’ve been involved for a long time, at a very high level.”

Langley also has experience working on issues from the business side, acting as general counsel for two major US brands looking to expand their reach in Japan in the 1990s. The insights he gained from both sides of the table enable his firm to successfully guide clients around the many pitfalls that come with doing business in Japan.

“Having been doing it for the longest amount of time, I’ve already made all the mistakes you can,” he says. “I’ve won fights, and I’ve lost fights, but I’ve learned from them all. We’re one of the very few firms you can go to with the confidence that we’ll deliver the goods.”

Clients from a wide range of industries — including technology, healthcare, finance, and energy — come to Langley Esquire for their services.

“We’re getting lots of client inquiries concerning renewables, because they’re a negligible percentage of Japan’s energy mix, but the government has decided this needs to increase greatly,” Langley says. “Many providers are European firms who have been doing renewables for years and have advanced geothermal or wind technologies.

“The EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, signed in 2018, is also opening more opportunities for European companies to do business in Japan,” he adds.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have also shifted priorities in ways that can benefit European innovators. For example, the increased attention on digital services in response to the crisis has revealed huge opportunities for technology companies.

“For our clients operating in the tech sector, it’s going gangbusters,” he says. “Most of the foreign companies have well-vetted, robust technologies that are implementable relatively quickly in this economy — as long as they can overcome the regulatory hurdles.”

Despite the complications thrown up by the coronavirus, Langley believes that Japan is more open to foreign firms and investment now than ever before, and — with the right partner — it is the best time for international businesses to work with the government to achieve their goals.

“There is a keen appetite here for technology, energy, finance — all sorts of things,” he says. “Right now, it’s an open door. You will get a fair hearing. And that wasn’t the case ten years ago. With the Olympics, Japan was poised to open up even more and, while Covid-19 has wrecked things, that mindset still exists.”

Langley’s advice to foreign firms wanting to succeed in Japan is to be engaged, embrace change, and take calculated risks.

“Think the impossible. The impossible can be done — you just need to envision it,” he says. “You’re a foreigner here, so you must do something different. If you want to be part of this economy, you have to be significant in some way.”

And Langley Esquire is ready to help clients achieve the impossible by advocating for their cause and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed.

“One of the reasons I think we’re good at what we do is because we work with both sides — the client as well as Japanese politicians or bureaucrats,” he explains. “The client needs to be educated: this is what you do, this is how you do it, and this is why you do it. Forming a relationship is very, very difficult.

“Making them successful makes us successful.”

Japanese history has seen countless surprises since Edo Castle was the centre of political life, and many dramatic ones in just the past 20 years. With the right guide, businesses today can not only navigate their way through history, but change it. •

“I've won fights, and I've lost fights, but I've learned from them all”