A Tale of Two Islands: Japan and Britain;

By Chris Green, Ross Thomson, Ranil Jayawardena
November 14, 2018

It is just over 400 years since the first British person set ashore on Japan, when in 1613, King James of Scotland and England sent the first British envoy to Japan to request a trading relationship be created, marking the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Two island nations, although a world apart, share a deep mutual connection, a proud history and an eagerness to trade. By becoming the two wealthiest island nations that the world has ever seen, Japan and Britain continue to play an influential role on the global stage, even to this day.

The historical ties between our two nations are also reflected by the arrival of the British born Thomas Blake Glover in Japan in 1859. He brokered the construction of Japan’s first modern warships which were both built and managed in Aberdeen by Hall Russell and Glover & Co respectively. Glover arranged for high ranking samurai to travel to the UK to learn and study. Of these groups, known as the “Choshu Five” and “Satsuma Nineteen”, two samurai would later become Japan’s first Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Glover also went on to co-find the Japan Brewery Company and he was central to Mitsubishi’s early expansion. He was the first foreign national to be recognised with the Order of the Rising Sun, the second most prestigious Japanese national award.

Japan, as the world’s third largest economy, has continued to be instrumental in providing economic leadership in helping to shape the economics of south-east Asia. The establishment of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) has allowed Japan to benefit from an arrangement that has removed 98% of trading barriers between its members, reflecting how Japan remains a voice for free trade and a truly global trading nation to this day.

In a post-Brexit Britain, it is right that the UK looks to build on these deep running ties between our two island nations. The welcome that Japan has given already to the prospect of the UK wanting to join TPP-11 is a firm reflection of “Global Britain” and an ambition to become a truly independent, global trading nation once again. By joining TPP-11, a partnership, not a bloc – the UK as the world’s fifth largest economy will fulfil the outlook it shares with the world’s third largest economy, not least on the need to maintain an open, liberal free-trading system based on international rules. The recent visit made by the President of the Board of Trade, Dr Liam Fox, confirmed how our two nations seek to implement this trading vision by Japan’s Prime Minister reiterating his ambition to welcome the UK joining the Pacific trade grouping in the near future.

Even today, the trading ties that exist between our two nations and the scale of investment already being made by Japan in the UK is a firm reflection of how important our partnership is. The latest figures show that the level of investment in the UK by Japan currently stands at £46 billion and it’s continuing to flourish, as our deep roots in the free market ensure that the UK welcomes new investment and remains an attractive place to do business. After all, Japan is the main source of investment in Asia for the UK, with around 100 new projects per year being given the financial backing they need. One such project is the Burnaston car plant in Derbyshire, where Toyota has invested £240 million, securing 750 jobs. As champions of the international rules based system, it was clear from our discussions with government and business that, Britain will continue to remain a natural investment destination for Japanese companies and a natural trading partner for Japan after Britain leaves the EU.

It is not just trade where our two nations share a common outlook, Japan also shares many similar security concerns with the UK and there is an opportunity to strengthen our relationship in the years ahead. Our two nations enjoyed close cooperation in the early 20th century as two great maritime powers. The nature of the threats we face today are different to those that existed a century ago, but our shared determination to deal with the threats that face us and to work together in doing so is no different. We have already seen how our two nations are already working closer together to prepare for security concerns. When, back in 2016, RAF Typhoon jets trained with Japanese military aircraft, which was the first time Japan’s air force had hosted an exercise with a nation other than the United States of America.

Britain is committed to working with Japan to help create a safer and more prosperous world by investing in what is needed to fight cyber warfare, asymmetrical threats and to ensure that sea lanes remain free from international terrorism and threats of piracy around the Horn of Africa and through the Malacca Straights. Britain is already in the process of reopening a naval support facility in Bahrain, creating a permanent army presence in Oman and establishing new defence centres in Dubai and Singapore. Once the two new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers are ready for deployment, they will also be seen to operate in the Pacific, in an effort to keep sea lanes open, as part of Britain’s commitment to rebuild its presence in the “east of Suez”, a further reflection of how Britain intends to think about its defence in global rather than European terms.

The long standing friendship that our two nations have shared for over 400 years will unquestionably continue to endure by the investment that we continue to put into one another’s country. From the economic giants of Nissan and Toyota, to the small things like our love of sushi, Japan continues to have a significant impact on Britain. In return, Japan has historically embraced many of Britain’s industry ideas and more recently, British fashion brands such as Paul Smith and Burberry and handmade cosmetics company Lush are hugely enjoyed by Japanese society today.

Brexit must not and will not undermine future investment into each other’s countries. Whilst it is welcome to see both Nissan and Toyota commit to invest further in the UK in the last couple of years though, it isn’t just economic ties that we need to continue to strengthen. Despite being a world apart, a further cultural exchange will always be welcome, whether this is in a love of sport or celebrities or simply enjoying the delights of each other’s foods even more. There are even huge opportunities for the UK to strengthen ties with Japan on education, where we can take a leading role in collaboration between our universities, the energy industry as well as opportunities for greater cultural engagement.

It is by strengthening our economic, political, strategic and cultural ties, we can make sure that great nations remain close, work together, help our people, live good lives and remain forces for good in the world.

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