Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility JH Explorer in Japan: A corporate governance awakening - Janus Henderson Investors
For individual investors in Sweden

JH Explorer in Japan: A corporate governance awakening

Portfolio Manager Aaron Scully shares first-hand perspective gained on his recent trip to Japan on the evolving Japanese equities landscape.

Aaron Scully, CFA

Aaron Scully, CFA

Portfolio Manager

1 May 2024
6 minute read

Key takeaways:

  • Japanese companies are embracing shareholder-friendly governance to improve value creation through greater transparency, balance sheet accountability, and incentive alignment.
  • Labor shortages and escalating trade tensions represent challenges for Japanese companies. In response, companies are hiring foreign workers and looking to diversify production beyond China to Southeast Asia and India.
  • Japan has innovative specialist companies in industries like semiconductors and water treatment that represent under-the-radar investment opportunities.
The JH Explorer series follows our investment teams across the globe and shares their on-the-ground research at a country and company level.


My recent trip to Japan offered insights into the evolving Japanese equities landscape and a firsthand look at some of the underappreciated, innovative companies in the country. Many of these companies operate in niche markets, so in-person visits provide the best opportunities to engage directly with management and others in the ecosystem to better gauge business models. Following are some of the key findings I uncovered during my visit.

Japanese firms are embracing shareholder-friendly governance

After 14 years of visits, this trip highlighted a significant shift in corporate governance. One reason for the shift is the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s (TSE) more stringent listing requirements and its approach to “naming and shaming” firms that are not enhancing capital efficiency.1 Not coincidentally, companies are now “seeing the light,” with management and employees embracing practices that enhance shareholder value.

Meetings during my visit were noticeably more productive this time and many were conducted in English. There were also some notable firsts: for example, one company’s management team openly discussed the possibility of hostile takeovers, something historically considered practically a mortal sin by Japanese executives. While not every company will adopt this approach, the mere willingness I witnessed signifies a significant shift in corporate culture.

In another first, an investor relations representative expressed interest in buying his own company’s stock. Traditionally, stock ownership is low in risk-averse Japan, where the public prefers the stability of postal savings. Management openly discussing personal share purchases highlights growing comfort with equity ownership. As my colleague Junichi Inoue, Head of Japanese Equities, noted in a recent article on the revival of investor interest in the Japanese market, “In contrast to past decades, the majority of Japanese companies are now owned by shareholders rather than keiretsu banks2 or employees and management acting as if they own the companies.”

Management compensation structures are also evolving and now incorporate equity awards for hitting medium-term financial targets, aligning employee interests with long-term shareholder value creation. Furthermore, the TSE’s practice of “naming and shaming” for subpar balance sheet efficiency has encouraged better asset management to avoid public scrutiny.

Early in cherry blossom season, these trees are showing signs of life. Similarly, shareholder capitalism in Japan is budding as more companies adopt shareholder-friendly policies.

Companies are grappling with labor shortages, trade tensions

As with past visits, labor shortages emerged as a recurring theme. Japan still faces an aging population and increasingly relies on foreign workers across sectors.

One company stated that it struggles hiring overseas workers to fill healthcare positions due to inadequate compensation. Technopro, an IT outsourcing firm, also highlighted the labor challenge in the technology sector. The company hires mainly IT-related engineers and outsources them to projects but can only meet 30% of customer demand.

Japan’s ongoing focus on digitization provides some labor offset and is a positive theme for companies offering automation and business solution services. Rakus, a software company allowing users to digitize expense management processes, has benefitted from Japan’s new digital invoicing system. But overall, labor constraints remain a structural headwind.

Management teams also expressed concerns about escalating U.S.-China trade tensions and the threat of high tariffs on Chinese goods. Many companies are contingency planning and considering a “dual manufacturing capacity” strategy to diversify production beyond China into Southeast Asia and India. However, despite this hedge, potential trade conflicts could create a significant headwind for Japanese companies exporting goods out of China in a more draconian trade war scenario.

Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and is known for its 1,000-year-old companies and craftsmanship. The central part of the city is crowded with small workshops.

From semiconductor to water-tech industries, Japanese innovation endures

Visiting the ancient city of Kyoto was particularly insightful. This city, known for its rich history of craftsmanship, is now home to a number of fascinating companies, a few of which have carved out niche roles in the semiconductor industry. Horiba and Nichicon, for example, specialize in high-precision components critical to chip production and electric vehicle technology, respectively. Their expertise underscores Kyoto’s innovation and continued relevance in the global economy.

Two of my more intriguing meetings happened to occur back to back and involved water treatment companies Organo and Kurita. These firms operate a water-as-a-service model with a focus on the semiconductor industry, which is becoming increasingly relevant as these customers face pressure to enhance water utilization. The service installs on-site purification and recycling systems that help promote a circular economy. This innovative service has gone largely unnoticed by investors, and I believe it offers a compelling sustainability solution.

The value of firsthand experience

We are firm believers that active management demands grass roots research to gain an edge. This particular trip reinforced the importance of firsthand experience in gauging the quality of new business models and in verifying the Japanese market’s corporate governance transformation. In my view, positive developments in the country hold the potential for exciting long-term investment opportunities.

Kyoto is also known for its traditional Japanese culture, including temples, shrines, palaces, gardens, and tea houses.

1 In 2023 the TSE announced a voluntary request for listed companies to create business plans to improve capital efficiency. In 2024, TSE began publishing a monthly list of companies that are disclosing action toward meeting those goals, thereby placing pressure on those that have not disclosed plans.

2 Keiretsu banks are financiers that are part of a keiretsu, which is a network of Japanese companies that have strong relationships with each other.

Our ESG integration approach: Thoughtful, practical, research-driven and forward-looking

JH Explorer

See our latest posts

JH Explorer

See our latest posts


References made to individual securities do not constitute a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any security, investment strategy or market sector, and should not be assumed to be profitable. Janus Henderson Investors, its affiliated advisor, or its employees, may have a position in the securities mentioned.

Concentrated investments in a single sector, industry or region will be more susceptible to factors affecting that group and may be more volatile than less concentrated investments or the market as a whole.

Foreign securities are subject to additional risks including currency fluctuations, political and economic uncertainty, increased volatility, lower liquidity and differing financial and information reporting standards, all of which are magnified in emerging markets.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (“ESG”) factors are integrated into the investment process by focusing on those ESG factors considered most likely to have a material impact on the financial performance of the issuers. ESG factors are one of many considerations in the investment decision-making process and may not be determinative in deciding to include or exclude an investment.

These are the views of the author at the time of publication and may differ from the views of other individuals/teams at Janus Henderson Investors. References made to individual securities do not constitute a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any security, investment strategy or market sector, and should not be assumed to be profitable. Janus Henderson Investors, its affiliated advisor, or its employees, may have a position in the securities mentioned.


Past performance does not predict future returns. The value of an investment and the income from it can fall as well as rise and you may not get back the amount originally invested.


The information in this article does not qualify as an investment recommendation.


Marketing Communication.






Important information

Please read the following important information regarding funds related to this article.

The Janus Henderson Horizon Fund (the “Fund”) is a Luxembourg SICAV incorporated on 30 May 1985, managed by Janus Henderson Investors Europe S.A. Janus Henderson Investors Europe S.A. may decide to terminate the marketing arrangements of this Collective Investment Scheme in accordance with the appropriate regulation. This is a marketing communication. Please refer to the prospectus of the UCITS and to the KIID before making any final investment decisions.
    Specific risks
  • Shares/Units can lose value rapidly, and typically involve higher risks than bonds or money market instruments. The value of your investment may fall as a result.
  • Shares of small and mid-size companies can be more volatile than shares of larger companies, and at times it may be difficult to value or to sell shares at desired times and prices, increasing the risk of losses.
  • The Fund follows a sustainable investment approach, which may cause it to be overweight and/or underweight in certain sectors and thus perform differently than funds that have a similar objective but which do not integrate sustainable investment criteria when selecting securities.
  • The Fund may use derivatives with the aim of reducing risk or managing the portfolio more efficiently. However this introduces other risks, in particular, that a derivative counterparty may not meet its contractual obligations.
  • If the Fund holds assets in currencies other than the base currency of the Fund, or you invest in a share/unit class of a different currency to the Fund (unless hedged, i.e. mitigated by taking an offsetting position in a related security), the value of your investment may be impacted by changes in exchange rates.
  • When the Fund, or a share/unit class, seeks to mitigate exchange rate movements of a currency relative to the base currency (hedge), the hedging strategy itself may positively or negatively impact the value of the Fund due to differences in short-term interest rates between the currencies.
  • Securities within the Fund could become hard to value or to sell at a desired time and price, especially in extreme market conditions when asset prices may be falling, increasing the risk of investment losses.
  • The Fund could lose money if a counterparty with which the Fund trades becomes unwilling or unable to meet its obligations, or as a result of failure or delay in operational processes or the failure of a third party provider.
  • The Fund follows a growth investment style that creates a bias towards certain types of companies. This may result in the Fund significantly underperforming or outperforming the wider market.