Assistance from the US and Japanese governments
But currently, although your US lawyer might not be able to help you start up in Japan, the US and Japanese governments will help you.
The first way they can help is in the area of information - general publications and market research reports. Although some of these reports may be dated or not exactly what you want, I've seen lots of market research reports on everything ranging from baby products and packaged software to mackerel and lingerie. These reports are in English, and many can be obtained for little or no cost from either the US Foreign Commercial Service, the Commerce Department or the Japan External Trade Organization, otherwise known as JETRO. JETRO was originally set up to help expand Japan's exports, but now JETRO is trying to increase Japan's imports.
Again, although some of these publications may not be perfect for you, they are much cheaper than an expensive research program, or they might serve as a guide for you to pinpoint your research activities.
The US and Japanese governments also have services which can help you enter the Japanese market.
For example, the US Foreign Commercial Service offers "business facilitation" or so-called "gold key services." With these, a US government official in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka or Sapporo will help you set up appointments, interpreters and meeting rooms for your initial foray into Japan. Because introductions from a "respected" source such as the government are especially important in Japan, this could be quite helpful.
Along with providing you with introductions, the US government will help you search out Japanese government procurements through a program called TOP - Trade Opportunities Program. In TOP, the US Commerce Department will find Japanese tender offers that look promising for American firms, and publish translations of these offers in the Commerce Business Daily.
The US government also provides a "Comparison Shopping Service" that will do extensive market research for your firm. This service costs about $3,500.
The Japanese government, on the other hand, will give you a rent-free office for up to two months. The 10 square meter office, located close to the American Embassy in Tokyo, is provided by JETRO, and comes equipped with faxes, copiers, computers and a business library. This service is open only to foreign companies that are serious about entering the Japanese market.
Although one definitely should look into these government services, remember they may have red tape associated with them. For example, most of the American services require several weeks of prior notice to set up appointments, and in the case of the rent-free JETRO offices, you may have to get a letter from a state or local trade representative vouching for your sincerity about entering the Japanese market.