Johnstone’s View - Strengthening relations with Japan

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During this time, when too many of my political colleagues have spent their time obsessing over Scottish independence, we need to remember that this introspective, self-obsessive approach to Scotland and its place in the world is, I hope, no more than a temporary aberration, and that we will soon be back to ‘business as usual’.

It therefore gave me great pleasure last week, to lead a debate in the Scottish Parliament to highlight the work which is being done to strengthen relations between Scotland and Japan, and in particular, the leading role which is being played by Aberdeen in this regard.

Recently, a motion to pursue a formal engagement strategy between the city of Aberdeen and Japan was passed unanimously by the City council.

It comes at a time of huge interest in Scotland from Japan, as is demonstrated by the amount of contact that my office has from Japanese organisations, and by the substantial coverage of Scottish affairs by Japanese media.

This welcome initiative by Aberdeen City Council is the latest step in a long and fascinating relationship between the city and Japan, which dates back to the 19th century, when Japan began to emerge from a period of strict foreign relations policies known as ‘sakoku’, to take her place as an industrialised nation on the world stage.

Thomas Blake Glover, who was born in Fraserburgh and grew up in Aberdeen, and whose name has been instantly recognised by every Japanese person I have met, played a pivotal role.

Among his many achievements in Japan was his supplying the country with its first modern ships, which were built in Aberdeen.

He imported into Japan its first dry dock, which was also constructed in Aberdeen and shipped to Nagasaki.

Ultimately, that dry dock would play a crucial role in the development of Mitsubishi.

Glover also assisted in a plan to smuggle five young samurai out of Japan to be educated in the west.

Those young men, who are now famously known as the Choshu five, would all at some point stay in Aberdeen. On returning to their native country, they would play pivotal roles in the development of modern Japan.

More recently, Aberdeen signed a citizens friendship city affiliation with Nagasaki, and the city council has joined the cross-party group on Japan, which meets here in the Scottish Parliament.

Other initiatives include Aberdeen Asset Management’s Thomas Blake Glover scholarship.

Against the backdrop of the extraordinary history between Aberdeen and Japan—especially the city of Nagasaki—the modern arguments for Aberdeen to pursue an ever-closer and mutually beneficial relationship with Japan are overwhelming.

Across the United Kingdom, there are 921 Japanese companies, with 140,000 employees, and 65 of those companies operate in Scotland, employing 5,000 people directly.

There are also many opportunities for Scottish and UK companies to export to a growing market in Japan. I believe that the desire to deliver the strategy has come at just the right time.

A key strength of the proposed strategy is Aberdeen’s ability to capitalise on its role as the energy capital of Europe and to forge new and exciting partnerships that will build on our existing strong relationship.

Aberdeen stands ready to bring its decades of experience in offshore energy to working closely with Japan in exploiting her own energy resources.

Perhaps even more important is that both Scotland and Japan are working tirelessly to increase the amount of energy that is harnessed from renewable sources such as offshore wind and photovoltaics.

Once again, Aberdeen has much to offer; there is huge potential for co-operation in research and development, trade, and, of course, in reducing the carbon emissions, which we all seek.

Vital though it is, Aberdeen City Council’s proposed strategy is about so much more than trade. It offers the opportunity for greater engagement, co-operation and understanding on many levels. It also seeks to deliver closer ties through education, and with two world-class universities Aberdeen is ideally placed for academic collaboration. I sincerely hope that local schools will also be able to play a role, perhaps by linking with their counterparts in Japan.

There can be no doubt that, on the Japanese side, there is a real commitment to making this strategy work for our mutual benefit and this was demonstrated by the presence of the consul general of Japan, Mr Hajime Kitaoka, who observed proceedings from the Presiding Officer’s gallery.

I and many people in Japan whole-heartedly welcome Aberdeen City Council’s proposal to formalise its engagement with the country. That engagement promises a host of exciting opportunities that can bring only great benefit to both sides, and I very much look forward to seeing that engagement developing and, ultimately, playing a hugely important role in promoting great friendship and understanding between not just Aberdeen and Japan but Scotland and Japan.