Legal Practice in Japan by Foreign Lawyers - What you need to know
The enactment of the Act on Special Measures Concerning the Handling of Legal Services by Foreign Lawyers ("Foreign Lawyers Act") in 1987 created a class of lawyers qualified to practice specified foreign laws in Japan. The qualification system was originally based on the principle of reciprocity, with a view to improving the availability in Japan of legal services in international legal matters. If you wish to practice law in Japan, you must comply with the requirements and procedures for foreign lawyers under the Foreign Lawyers Act and be registered as a special member of both the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and a local bar association.
Ministry of Justice approval and registration as a Registered Foreign Lawyer
In order to become a "registered foreign lawyer," a foreign practitioner must first be approved by the Minister of Justice.
In addition to other substantive requirements, foreign lawyers who wish to practice foreign law in Japan must have a valid license in their home or other jurisdiction and post-qualification experience. Prior to the 2020 amendment discussed below, licensed professionals engaged in the practice of law in a foreign country, who are equivalent to lawyers admitted in Japan, and who had at least 3 years' post-qualification experience in their home jurisdiction (or other jurisdiction where they were licensed to practice) were eligible to become a Registered Foreign Lawyer (Gaikokuho Jimu Bengoshi) or "GJB/Gaiben" as they are colloquially known.
This 3-year requirement was relaxed recently under a 2020 amendment of the Foreign Lawyers Act to allow up to 2 years of lawful practice in Japan to be counted toward the 3-year requirement.
Eligible practitioners may be permitted to practice the law of the jurisdiction(s) in which they are licensed in Japan.
If a foreign lawyer files an application for approval, the Minister of Justice will solicit the views of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Nichibenren) or "JFBA." After the Minister of Justice approves the application, the applicant's name must be registered on the roll of foreign lawyers maintained by the JFBA as a Registered Foreign Lawyer (Gaikokuho Jimu Bengoshi). The applicant must submit a written request for registration to the JFBA through the local bar association which they intend to join.
The Tokyo Bar Association welcomes Registered Foreign Lawyers as special members. If you are interested in becoming a special member of the Tokyo Bar Association, please visit this page for further details
A GJB may be subject to a disciplinary action by a resolution of the GJB disciplinary committee of the JFBA if the GJB violates any provision of the Foreign Lawyers Act, the JFBA's rules or rules of the local bar association to which the GJB belongs.
How Many GJBs Registered
As of March 1, 2021, there were 442 GJBs registered as special members of the JFBA, of which 86 GJBs were registered with the Tokyo Bar Association (Toben).
Major Amendments to the Foreign Lawyers Act
The Foreign Lawyers Act has undergone a number of major amendments since it was first enacted in 1987. The first of these amendments, enacted in 1994, was in response to and based upon commitments undertaken by Japan, as part of the GATS agreement. Pursuant to this amendment, certain requirements for registration as a GJB were relaxed (the current requirements are noted above) and, importantly, Japanese attorneys and GJBs were permitted to form joint ventures with some limitations. In addition, the reciprocity requirement was relaxed and eliminated for foreign lawyers from WTO member states (but not from non-WTO states).
In furtherance of the above liberalization, in 1996 GJBs were also permitted to appear in a representational capacity in international commercial arbitrations conducted in Japan. However, by far the most sweeping of the changes to the Foreign Lawyers Act were enacted in 2003. These changes enabled Japanese attorneys and GJBs to form direct partnerships and GJBs to employ Japanese attorneys. These changes came into effect on April 1, 2005.
Under the 2020 amendment, the scope of representation by GJBs in international arbitrations was expanded to include international mediations, and the 3-year post qualification experience requirement was eased to include up to 2 years' lawful practice in Japan, instead of up to 1 year before the amendment. In addition, the amendment permits a legal practice corporation to be jointly held by GJBs and Japanese practitioners. The first two changes became effective in 2020, and the last change will be effective within 2 and a half years from May 29, 2020, the date of promulgation.
Role of International Committee
The International Committee of the Tokyo Bar Association ("International Committee") oversees matters relating to Registered Foreign Lawyers, including the processing of GJB applications and GBJ discipline. The International Committee boasts several GJBs as members and is actively engaged in building closer links between foreign lawyers and Japanese lawyers based in Tokyo.