UK: The Japanese in Britain - The best of oriental luck. (3 of 3)

UK: The Japanese in Britain - The best of oriental luck. (3 of 3) - The second factor, says Chiba, is "the free trade tradition in Britain, both in the Government and in the attitudes of the people. There is a liberal tradition with a small 'l' and even

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The second factor, says Chiba, is "the free trade tradition in Britain, both in the Government and in the attitudes of the people. There is a liberal tradition with a small 'l' and even under previous governments this atmosphere had always existed ... This experience does not seem to exist in many other EC countries, and therefore is a very reassuring element for the Japanese businessmen who want to come here."

"Third," he goes on, "British labour is extremely good. The people are well educated and if you treat them right, organise them right and train them right they will respond with enthusiasm. To use an Americanism, 'There is a lot of motivation there', but you have to do the motivating." We are no longer used to thinking of ourselves as a well educated society, if we ever were. The resounding success of Japanese firms here may suggest that our gloom on this subject is overdone.

Other factors are involved too. At the political level, Mrs Thatcher's passionate advocacy of Japanese inward investment in general and the Nissan project in particular did a lot to swing things Britain's way. "She used what is known as The Handbag very liberally," says Chiba. "Many of our Prime Ministers developed figurative bumps on the head."

And at the level of global strategy - a level at which today's Japanese love to weave theories and identify patterns - Britain's unique position between Europe and the United States, and the status of the City as one of the three poles of the financial world, have served us well.

For all of these reasons, Japan has found the UK to be the ideal foothold for the leap into Europe. Chiba sees an analogy with the West Coast of America. "Some Europeans accuse us of somehow favouring Britain," he says. "I was interviewed by a German television network. I said 'Think of it in terms of the United States'. Japan first started investing about 15 years ago in California, because California was closest to us in various ways, not only geographically but in many other ways. But by the time I arrived as Consul General in Atlanta, Georgia, the first Japanese factories were coming in.

"Today we have factories all over the US Southeast, stretching from California into this part of the United States. So I mentioned that and said 'Regard Britain as the California of Europe. Before long you will have Japanese factories in the mountain fastnesses of Bavaria and in the deep forest of the Massif Central in southern France'."

It is not very good for self-esteem to see ourselves as we are seen: as a linguistically convenient foothold, as pliable, capable of being motivated. But a little humility would probably do this country no harm. And already the advantages of being so conveniently placed are bringing us real, as opposed to merely symbolic, benefits.

Once again it is the motor industry which is showing the way. Nissan's involvement in the UK began very recently and in a very small way. "In January 1985 when we started," says Ian Gibson, chief executive of Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK, "there were 12 of us sitting round a table." By 1992 Nissan expects to be manufacturing 200,000 cars annually with a workforce of 3,500, and to double that output to 400,000 by the late 1990s. Toyota, from its £700 million factory in Burnaston, Derbyshire, plans to produce 200,000 cars a year by 1996-97, while Honda's £370 million plant at Swindon should be turning out 100,000 a year by 1994. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the UK could be making more than two million cars a year by the end of the century, with the increase from the present level of 1.3 million due almost entirely to the Japanese. The UK could well become Europe's biggest car maker.

It is an extraordinary reversal of fortunes. Looking back from the turn of the new millennium, it may turn out to be the most positive development for which Mrs Thatcher deserves her country's thanks.

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