Johnstone’s View - The relationship between Japan and Scotland

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This week saw the screening by the BBC of the Neil Oliver documentary about the role of North East man, Thomas Blake Glover in the opening up of trade with Japan in the mid-19th century.

I have been promoting the relationship between Scotland and Japan for some years now, and founded the Cross Party Group on Japan so that we could develop the important relationship between our two countries. As part of this objective, I last week, hosted a Scotland and Japan reception in the Scottish Parliament.

I am pleased to say that the event was a great success, and as well as guests from Japan and the rest of the United Kingdom, I was delighted to welcome individuals and organisations from the across the north east including Aberdeen City Council and Robert Gordon University. Robert Gordon University for example has been doing some extremely interesting collaborative work with Japanese universities and this looks set to continue with other projects in the pipeline.

We had some excellent presentations on doing business in Japan, and an overview of some current projects. The Consul General of Japan, Mr Hajime Kitaoka also spoke and reflected on the shared history that we enjoy, and the many Scots who have gone to Japan and had such a positive impact there.

I was also pleased to meet the several people who had gone to Japan after graduating from university to take part in the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme, which takes graduates and places them in Japanese schools as assistant teachers. All of them had returned with a very positive view of their time with the programme, and all had gone on to successful careers on their return, with employers valuing their international experience.

At a time when economies across Europe remain in a state of uncertainty, I believe it is vital that we do everything possible to engage with markets in the Far East. There is no question that we in Scotland punch above our weight in terms of trade, but an over reliance on domestic markets is not really a sustainable option. It makes sense therefore that we look further afield for trade, especially as we now live in what many economists refer to as the ‘Century of Asia’.

There is no question that at £2.8bn, exports to Asia from Scotland are dwarfed by our exports to Europe at £12.9bn, which again is pales in comparison to our exports to the rest of the United Kingdom, which are estimated to be £46.2bn. To my mind however, these statistics highlight the fact that significant opportunities continue to present themselves in Asia.

The Referendum shone a world-wide spotlight on Scotland, and one of the countries most interested in the process, and indeed our decision to remain in the United Kingdom, was Japan. I had a considerable amount of contact from Japanese media in the weeks and months before the Referendum, and this interest in Scotland, our culture and industries continues. For example, there has been a surge in the amount of British television programmes available on Japanese TV, and the same goes for the film and publishing sectors.

So what does this mean for businesses in the Mearns? We know that some sectors do better in the Japanese market than others, and the list is quite diverse. For example power generation equipment, machinery, food and drink, as well as tourism are all areas, among several others, that do well in Japan, and are potential trade opportunities for Mearns businesses.

Forthcoming sporting events in Japan will also provide potential opportunities. The 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games are two important events that are delivering possibilities, especially in the field of communications, design, training and consultancy, low carbon technology and sustainability.

The fact is that many north east companies are already successfully making inroads into important export markets, and I wholeheartedly commend them for doing so.

In this article, I have focussed on Japan, but this is just an example of where I believe we need to be internationally. This means the Scottish Government has to up its game in assisting and encouraging Scottish businesses to take advantage of the opportunities that exporting can deliver, which of course will result in stronger businesses with more job and training opportunities.

Helping firms, especially small to medium enterprises look at what they can offer to the export market and support them in moving into new areas will reap huge benefits for north east firms, but support is key. The Scottish Government therefore needs to focus more on looking and reaching outwards to the global markets and spend less time making us look insular and chippy.

Our History has so much to teach us, were we not so busy continually trying to re-write it.