A Lost Decade for Japanese Corporate Governance Reform?: What's Changed, What Hasn'T, and Why
36 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2003
Date Written: July 9, 2003
Analysis of Japanese corporate law reveals a striking amount of formal institutional change in the past ten years, occurring at an ever-accelerating pace. This feature of law reform can be traced to a heightened awareness of the organizational straightjacket imposed on Japanese firms by the Commercial Code, and to a more competitive and market-responsive environment for the production of corporate law. It has been a "sea change decade" for Japanese corporate law.
Yet it has been an ambiguous decade for Japanese corporate practices. Signs of change in response to the new institutional environment can be found in the areas of shareholder activism, corporate mergers and acquisitions and other organizational changes, board structure, and corporate finance. At the same time, however, domestic institutional investors remain passive, management remains largely insulated from the market for corporate control, and "lifetime" employment practices, while covering a shrinking subset of the Japanese workforce, remain firmly in place.
This paper accounts for the observed pattern of change and non-change by analyzing the political economy of corporate law reform, the complementarities at work between corporate law and other institutions, and the relationship between corporate law and corporate governance. Japanese corporate law has become more adaptable and responsive to "demand-side" impulses, but it also increasingly reflects the interests of Japanese management, an organized group potentially threatened by corporate law reform. Without external pressures, Japanese managers are able to use the newfound flexibility of the corporate law to entrench themselves as well as to improve returns to shareholders. Moreover, while the corporate law has improved, several complementary institutions needed to complete the institutional package are still incomplete. Ultimately, corporate law bears only a limited relationship to corporate governance. Changes in corporate practices are brought about by dynamics external to the formal corporate governance institutions. Thus, the sea change in Japanese corporate governance must await further changes in the distribution of shareholders, in the capital markets, and in the incentive structures for management, and the further erosion of corporate norms that promote employee and managerial interests over shareholder interests.
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By Mark D. West