Rethinking Europe, Global Pairings

The Continental Unease of Britain and Japan

Why some Japanese are particularly sympathetic toward the pro-Brexit camp.

Credit: ReflectedSerendipity and


  • “Establishment Japan” – largely the business world and the top echelons of politics – is against Brexit.
  • The threat of a plunge in Japanese FDI to Britain depending on the outcome of the Brexit vote is very real.
  • There is a dark side to nations that do not share borders with other countries, namely an island mentality.

Whether Britons decide to remain an integral part of the European Union, or part ways from the continent, one thing is clear: the United Kingdom will continue to be distinct from its neighbors.

This is true not least geographically, as the country is separated from the rest of Europe by the English Channel.

That sense of distinctness, stemming from a historic divide between the British and the continental Europeans, is not unlike the sense of separation Japan has with the rest of Asia.

The physical divide that the English Channel and the Sea of Japan lends has led to a number of striking similarities between Britain and Japan.

Overlooked by many, this has led to a special relationship between the two countries in recent decades.

An understanding about a seemingly irreconcilable divide between “us” and “them” across the sea has encouraged some Japanese to be particularly sympathetic toward the pro-Brexit camp.

To be sure, “Establishment Japan” – largely the business world and the top echelons of politics – is staunchly against Britain leaving the EU.

More than a matter of business

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cautioned that Britain’s allure as a destination for Japanese corporations would dim should it no longer be part of the union.

Meanwhile, industrial giant Hitachi’s chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi wrote in the Daily Mirror earlier this month that “Brexit would force us and similar companies to rethink, because we still have a European vision, and would be disadvantaged in pursuing it from the UK.”

With over 1,300 Japanese companies invested in the United Kingdom providing over 140,000 jobs — the biggest Japanese investments in any single European nation by far — the threat of a plunge in Japanese foreign direct investments to Britain depending on the outcome of the Brexit vote is very real.

Yet, Japan’s special relationship with Britain goes far beyond economic ties. In fact, the reason why Japanese companies voted with their pocketbooks to choose Britain as their gateway to Europe is precisely because they have an affinity towards the UK.

Counting the ways of Japanese affinity

They feel this affinity in a way that they do not sense with any other country in the world, certainly not any European nation.

As Japan looked for new models for governance from the late 19th century, it was Britain’s parliamentary democracy that was one of the most highly scrutinized options, together with the U.S. and German systems.

Moreover, even after being occupied by the United States following its defeat in World War II, Japan ended up adopting a bicameral parliamentary democracy based on the British model.

That is why Japan has an upper and lower house system, not to mention that it chose to become a constitutional monarchy.

And even though Japan’s military today is a self-defense force, its most powerful and prestigious arm, the navy, is modeled upon Britain’s. The reason for that is simple: Maritime security is critical to defending countries surrounded by water.

Pro-Brexit lobby’s real motive

But there is a dark side to nations that do not share borders with other countries, namely an island mentality. This mindset runs contrary to the reality of an ever more integrated, globalized world.

The more rational pro-Brexit members of the Conservative Party promote leaving the EU as a means for Britain to be able to call its own shots. They say this will help securing trade deals and making domestic industries more competitive.

But the truth of the matter is that the pro-Brexit lobby is driven in large part by fear of mass immigration, especially those who do not speak English and seemingly do not share their new home country’s values.

There also is a general loathing about collaborating with other nations to reach common objectives.

Granted, there has been no move toward political and economic unity in Asia on the sheer scale that the Europeans have.

But from multilateral deals including the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership deal, to bilateral free trade pacts, efforts to integrate Asian markets appear unstoppable.

Political price of Brexit

On the other hand, there is a surge in frenzied nationalism across economically successful Asian countries. This leads to a de facto arms race and a deep mistrust of one another that flies in the face of greater economic integration.

How those differences of “us” and “them” are set aside in view of a common interest will be one of the greatest challenges facing the success of Asia as the world’s most economic dynamic region.

An exodus from the European Union would cost the British economy dearly, as it would the EU itself. But the political price that Britain will pay would be far greater, as its global role model of democracy, free markets and enlightenment would be tarnished, perhaps irrecoverably.

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About Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is Deputy Director for Geoeconomics with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program and a Senior Editor at The Globalist [Washington, D.C, United States]

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