Bengoshi are senior Japanese lawyers. In a notion somewhat alien to the West, bengoshi are regarded as some of the most senior members of society and afforded due respect. Bengoshi are always referred to as sensa, the Japanese word for teacher and the highest form of address (most people are referred to as san). The actual word bengoshi is similar to the definition of barrister, and relates to someone who stands up and argues. Bengoshi have only existed in Japan since the 19th century.

There is a dire shortage of private practice bengoshi, principally because of the long and difficult training involved. Although numbers in Tokyo have risen from 6,562 in 1991 to just under 9,000 today, it is still a tiny amount of lawyers for such an important market. Few, too, have the experience or expertise to handle international deals. Very few, for example, speak English.

In general terms, bengoshi are very protectionist and have, in the eyes of many, held back the liberalisation of the legal market, both domestically and internationally.

Charles Stevens, managing partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s Tokyo office, says: “The protectionists among Japanese lawyers have been very vocal. They’ve managed to spoil everything by refusing to go along with the consensus to open up the market. But it’s very hard to become a domestic lawyer, and therefore they’re very protectionist of their monopoly.”

There are, however, a range of lawyers that are below the bengoshi. These include zeirishi (tax), berishi (patent), gyoseishoshi (local scrivener) and shihoshoshi (public notary).