Between 1972 and 1984 inclusive, 30 Japanese firms started manufacturing in Britain. Nineteen eighty four was without doubt the watershed, the year when, after an eternity of agonising and a fierce internal struggle between management and union, Japan's number two car maker, Nissan, took the plunge and decided to build a plant in Sunderland. Since then the number of new arrivals has soared: eight in 1985, 14 in 1987, 19 in 1988, 30 in 1989. Last year 34 new Japanese firms either commenced operating in the UK or announced that they planned to.
Cars, TVs, microwave ovens, ball bearings, machine tools - these are the sort of products which no one is surprised to hear that the Japanese are making here. But already the range of products has spread far beyond the stereotypes. Fishing rods, drum kits, pianos and ballet shoes are among the products now being made in the UK by Japanese firms. In Scotland they are distilling whisky. In Reading they are assembling golf clubs. Cashmere knitwear (after last year's takeover of Bond Street's Murray Allen by Toyo Boshi Kogyo), Aquascutum's clothing range (taken over by Renown) and garden products (Pan Britannica Industries of Waltham Cross, taken over by giant Sumitomo) are among the other improbable items for which we will now have to learn to be dependent on the Japanese. There are now about 150 Japanese manufacturing companies in the UK, employing over 45,000 people - only a fraction of the half million or so employed by American-based companies, but a much larger fraction than it used to be.
For several parts of the country the arrival of the Japanese has been as happy and unlooked-for a turn of events as suddenly striking oil. The North-east, with its Nissan flagship, is the most celebrated case, but the South-west was celebrating a comparable victory when Murata decided to set up a £50 million electronics factory in a former Texas Instruments plant in Plymouth at the end of 1989, joining Toshiba's thriving television factory in the city, chosen as one of Britain's five best manufacturing facilities in a Management Today survey carried out in 1989. Toshiba is now building a new factory in the same region to turn out air conditioning equipment. The Devon and Cornwall Development Board, which lured the firms to the region, has its sights on some 30 other Japanese companies which are considering locating there.
In Wales the arrival in strength of the Japanese has done something to compensate for the collapse of the coal and steel industries. Jobs in these industries dropped from 80,000 in 1977 to some 35,000 six years later, and in the desperate hunt for new work, according to David Waterstone, chief executive of the Welsh Development Agency, "we went hunting on the basis of shooting at anything that moved". The result: 35 Japanese companies have set up in the principality, many tempted by the resounding success of Sony's TV plant at Bridgend. Sony's operation has won three Queen's Awards for Export Achievement since the company's bold move to Wales in 1974, obtains more than 90% of its content from Europe, manufactures cathode ray tubes and front glass panels on the premises, and has a thriving R and D department.
As is still true throughout the UK, though not for much longer, the symbolism of Japanese investment is greater than the substance. Waterstone points out that despite all the hoo-ha less than 7% of Welsh employees work in foreign-owned companies, and a disproportionate number of these jobs relative to traditional employment are unskilled and female. Nonetheless, their arrival has been a tonic for the region.
What have we done to deserve all of this good luck? There are Japanese plants in many parts of Europe now, but investment in the UK outstrips that of anywhere else, amounting to about £4 billion, more than 30% of the total Japanese investment in Europe. Kazuo Chiba, until recently Japanese ambassador to Britain, adduces three main reasons.
"The first is language," he says. "It is easier for a Japanese manager to understand what the workers are saying in Britain, be that in Geordie country or in Wales or in Scotland, than, for instance, in the lands of the Italians, Greeks, Spaniards or even the French ... I once read that this argument is rubbish because Japanese businessmen are not proficient in the English language. Maybe they cannot speak it well, but they can hear and read it ... Our people are very good at understanding what is written. Nevertheless, when a Geordie worker speaks he is ultimately understood because, after all, his grammar does not differ much from written English."