Scotland is rightly proud of a small group of enterprising pioneers who played a key role in the industrialisation of Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The most famous was the “Scottish Samurai”. Thomas Blake Glover was an Aberdeenshire merchant who — among a quite staggering list of achievements — founded the shipbuilding company which became the Mitsubishi Corporation and introduced the first railways to Japan.
Other Scots charted the coasts of Japan, built the country’s lighthouse network and, perhaps not surprisingly, established distilleries that are still going strong today. During a time of rapid technological and economic progress, the transfer of talent between Scotland and Japan flowed both ways. The chief foreman on the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge was a Japanese engineer, Kaichi Watanabe.
I’ve just returned from a visit to Japan. My short time there served as an important reminder that these historical footnotes were actually the foundations of a deep and enduring partnership between our two countries. That partnership is thriving and after visiting a number of companies over the past few days, I am confident it will only strengthen further as we look to the future.
Throughout the trip I was struck by the opportunities that exist for Scottish businesses, either to expand into Japan, or to export to one of Britain’s biggest overseas markets.
A Glasgow-based luxury knitwear company, Green Thomas, for example, has made the most of these opportunities. Working with the British Department for International Trade they have built up relationships with industry players in Tokyo, and Japan is now their biggest export market, totalling 70 per cent of their order book in 2017.
There are also exporting opportunities for Scotland’s world-renowned produce. Our exports to Japan increased 11 per cent in 2016, to almost half a billion pounds, three quarters of which was whisky. But — just like at home — Scottish craft gin is also making its mark. The Foreign Office and Department for Trade are working hard to showcase the full range of Scottish food and drink.
I was impressed, too, by the confidence Japanese firms have in Scotland. I visited Mitsubishi Electric which recently reaffirmed its commitment to Livingston, near Edinburgh, where for nearly 20 years it has operated an important manufacturing base. At Nikon, I heard how they are integrating a high-tech Scotland-based firm into their business after acquiring it in a £260m deal, and only last week the Tokyo-based Terumo Corporation announced an investment of £33million in one of its subsidiary companies, Vascutek Limited, in Renfrewshire.
There are also strong academic partnerships between the UK and Japan. Already more than 8000 researchers take part in exchanges between our two countries each year and at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology I saw the beginnings of a new collaboration, with Stirling University. Two leaders in the field of aquaculture joining forces for a series of new projects.
Japan is an established, valued and hugely important partner. During her visit last year, Theresa May agreed with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that, as the UK exits the EU, the UK and Japan will work quickly to establish a new economic partnership based on the final terms of the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement.
Since then, the prime minister and Liam Fox, the trade secretary, have met senior representatives of Japanese businesses at Downing Street.
Last week, I was banging the drum for Scottish businesses. I return more confident than ever that Scotland and the whole of the UK is set to reap the benefits of strengthening the links between our countries. Our relationship has a long history and a great future.
David Mundell is secretary of state for Scotland and Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale
Source: The Times