An island nation, obsessed by tea, known for the politeness of its people and with a hereditary sovereign as head of state. Add the sight of cars driving on the left, school children in uniforms and pubs in every town and there is only country in the world that you could possibly be thinking of.
You would think.
In fact, there are two countries you could be thinking of. The UK or Japan. The island monarchies share similar drinking habits and traffic quirks as well as a long history and a significant economic relationship.
Not that you would know it from reading the news. Missives from political correspondents in Washington D.C. and spats between the UK and France provide much more saleable copy. But that is no reason to ignore the fruitful relationship between East and West. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s visit to Japan in 1982, the UK and Japan have enjoyed a quiet, steady-as-she-goes relationship that is both strong and stable (to coin a phrase).
If the relationship lacks the drama of the UK’s bonds with its European or North American friends, it shouldn’t be overlooked as a place for low-risk growth opportunities and expansion.
Let’s look at the numbers.
The total value of trade between the UK and Japan to the end of June 2022 stood at £24.6 billion, an increase of nearly 22% since 2012. Total trade before the Covid-19 pandemic was admittedly higher than it is today, reaching £28.8 billion in 2019, but this is par for the course. Total trade grew by 0.6% between 2021 and 2022. The green shoots of recovery are there.
Foreign Direct Investment tells an even better story. Between the vote to leave the EU in 2016 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, investment into the UK from Japan more than doubled from £45.5 billion to £102.3 billion. Over the decade since 2011, inward investment to the UK from Japan has grown nearly fourfold. The decrease in the value of sterling against the yen has, of course, been a major contributory factor. The fall in the pound from just over ¥195 in August 2015 to a low of ¥125 in March 2020 has made investment in the UK significantly more attractive.
But there are other reasons to be optimistic about the opportunities the relationship creates. The UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, signed in October 2020, was the first trade agreement the UK signed outside of the EU with any country. It provided an important political signal of intent between London and Tokyo: that practical economic considerations would win out over any political posturing following the UK’s exit from the EU.
Japan’s enthusiasm for the UK’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is a further sign of the value that Tokyo places on London’s contribution to international trade and politics in the East. Japan’s Economy Minister, Yasutoshi Nishimura, said that “the importance of Britain as a strategic partner and the expansion of the high-level rules beyond the Asia-Pacific are extremely important.”
Since 2018, British troops have also participated in training exercises in Japan with the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Forces through the VIGILANT ISLES series. In May 2022, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed a Reciprocal Access Agreement to facilitate UK and Japanese Armed Forces on training, joint exercises and disaster relief activities – the first such agreement for a European country with Japan. Johnson also announced the appointment of a new trade envoy to Japan, former Business Secretary, Greg Clark MP, to drive investment between the two countries.
Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako’s attendance at The Queen’s funeral in September was the couple’s first overseas trip since the emperor’s accession in 2019. A further diplomatic coup and a show of the enduring relationship between the royal families.
Relations between the two countries are arguably stronger now on the economic, military and diplomatic front than at any time since the Meiji restoration in 1868. The ever-closer relationship between London and Tokyo puts the stability of Japanese investment in the UK in good stead over the medium to long term. For investors, the opportunities that stem from this relationship should not be ignored – even if they don’t make the headlines.