Japan taking leave of U.K. ahead of Brexit
Risk of no deal leads foreign investors to shift operations.
After a February meeting between U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and 19 Japanese business chiefs, Tokyo’s ambassador to Britain warned what might happen if Brexit took an unfavorable turn for foreign investors.
“No private company can continue operations” in the U.K. if it becomes unprofitable, Koji Tsuruoka told reporters on the steps of May’s Downing Street residence, after the premier pledged to pursue frictionless trade with the European Union. “It is as simple as that.”
Eight months later, as the risk of a no-deal Brexit looms larger and nearer, Japanese companies aren’t waiting around to find out whether May can deliver. Instead, a growing number of them are heeding Tsuruoka’s warning, shifting operations out of the U.K. or threatening to scale back if the country crashes out of the EU without a deal.
Toyota says that it might have to temporarily halt output at its plant in Derby, England, in the event of a so-called hard Brexit. Electronics maker Panasonic has moved its European headquarters from near London to Amsterdam, while the Japanese retailer of Muji products is mulling a similar relocation to Germany. Other companies, like robot maker Yaskawa Electric Corp., are choosing continental sites for new operations in order to stay close to European customers if Brexit creates trade hurdles.
“A lot of Japanese companies, manufacturing companies in particular, have invested in this country as a gateway to Europe,” Shinichi Iida, minister for public diplomacy and media for the Japanese embassy in London, said in an interview. “A no-deal Brexit in March next year will be nothing short of a cliff edge” for our businesses.
The stakes are high for both countries because of their close economic ties. The U.K. is Japan’s second-biggest investment destination after the U.S., with $153 billion committed as of 2017, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. The Asian nation is the biggest investor in Britain aside from the U.S. and a handful of European neighbors. About 1,000 Japanese companies operate in the U.K. employing roughly 160,000 workers.
Many of these firms came to Britain in the 1980s as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promoted the country as a point of access to Europe. That history has not been forgotten. A 15-page letter issued by the Japanese government to the U.K. in September 2016, three months after the referendum, said Tokyo trusts that the U.K. “will give due consideration to the context in which Japanese businesses have invested in” Britain.
Japanese business officials’ blunt talk is unusual for a corporate culture where confrontation is frowned upon and contrasts with many U.K. firms’ own reluctance to speak out about Brexit. A December survey by JETRO found 47 percent of Japanese-affiliated companies in Europe thought leaving the EU would have a negative impact on them. Their main concerns were a U.K. economic slump and exporting from the U.K. to the bloc.
Now some of them are sizing up new sites in Europe. Japanese banks such as Nomura Holdings, Daiwa Securities Group and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group have all opened Europe hubs in Germany. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. has chosen the Netherlands as a base for its investment banking business in Europe, while Mizuho Financial Group Inc. is bolstering its operations in both countries.