As Seen on TV: Japan's Corporate 'Vultures'

"Are 'vulture' funds simply looters? Or can they be saviors?" an anchorwoman asks herself, having reported on successful corporate buyouts. This isn't a script from the evening news, but a scene from a new hit Japanese TV show called "Vultures," or "Hagetaka," which chronicles the wheelings and dealings of a Western buyout fund in Tokyo.

Private equity is top of mind these days, and not just on the small screen. Over the past several months, scores of Western private-equity funds, including KKR, Bain Capital and Texas Pacific Group, have opened or expanded their offices in Tokyo. Others, like the Carlyle Group, have raised new money for Japan—in fact, private-equity investment here has more than tripled to $34 billion in just two years, according to a survey by news service Nikkei Shimbun. While February's hostile takeover bid by New York-based Steel Partners for Sapporo Breweries is likely a one-off, it does seem that private equity is set to overhaul the country's notoriously insular business culture. Still, industry experts say there are plenty of hurdles to overcome en route.

Despite the new flood of cash, there have been only a handful of major private-equity transactions completed in the last few years. Cultural barriers remain high—Japanese companies resist layoffs, and management is reluctant to sell off shares in companies where they've spent a lifetime. In recent months, nearly 200 Japanese companies have adopted some sort of poison pill clause to make unwanted takeovers more difficult. "It's quite a tough market for newcomers," says Megumi Kiyozuka, a managing director at CLSA Capital Partners, a Hong Kong-based firm which recently launched a $340 million Japanese fund.

But pressure for change is mounting. Institutional investors like the Murakami Fund have begun advocating for private equity, urging corporate Japan to consider buyouts of ailing companies and divisions. Steel Partners alone has been more aggressive, threatening to sue Sapporo if it aims for a poison pill.

Moves like this don't sit well; Japanese employees still see companies as part of their own identity. But analysts say Japan needs buyouts to increase competitiveness. Already, they are providing plenty of drama, on screen and off.