Rising Japanese interest in Scottish products goes far beyond a fondness for staples such as whisky and golf, writes Chris McCall
They might be more than 5,600 miles apart, but the links between Scotland and Japan date back 150 years to a time when Scots engineers helped the Pacific nation kickstart its own industrial revolution.
Now the Scottish Government is looking to boost business and cultural ties between the two countries with a series of events planned throughout 2017, including a “Scotland Day” in the Toshima ward of Tokyo and a tour of artworks throughout Japan organised by the National Galleries of Scotland.
External affairs secretary Fiona Hyslop visited Japan this week with representatives of Scottish Development International (SDI) to explore further opportunities for growth.
Latest available export figures show the overall value of food and drink sales to Japan rose by nine per cent to a record £98.7 million in 2015, compared with £90.3m in 2014 and £51.63m in 2007.
Whisky exports account for 77 per cent of the total, with seafood 16.71 per cent of Scotland’s current food and drink exports to Japan.
Growing the number of Japanese visitors to Scotland is also a priority, with around 9,500 arriving in 2015, the most recent figure available.
More than 1,500 Japanese nationals currently reside in Scotland full-time.
A spokesman for the Japanese consulate in Edinburgh told The Scotsman: “Japan has had a long relationship with Scotland going back 150 years.
“Today our two countries continue this relationship through mutual trade and investment since the early 1980s with several important Japanese investments into Scotland over the past couple of years showing Japan’s confidence in the skills found in the Scottish economy and a place to do business.
“Japanese people also enjoy visiting or living in Scotland very much - a country of great natural beauty which is appreciated by Japanese. We are very confident that this relationship will continue for years to come.”
There are 85 Japanese-owned companies with operations in Scotland, including Shin-Etsu Handotai and Mitsubishi Electric, both working in electronic engineering sectors which has long been a speciality.
Mitsubishi and Mitsui have also recently expanded into the growing renewable energy sector in Scotland, while medium-sized, high-tech firms, such as Vascutek and Optos, have found themselves Japanese buyers. The former was an acquisition by a medical company to utilise Paisley-based firm’s weaving technology to enable the production of strong but highly elastic heart blood vessels.
Photographic giant Nikon secured a deal for Optos in 2015 with a view to creating instant medical photography of the retina.
Perhaps the biggest Scottish success story in the island nation was Victorian industrialist Thomas Blake Glover, whose legacy is still revered in Japanese business circles. Born in Fraserburgh in 1838, the son of a coastguard, he was later awarded the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of the work he did to help transform the country during the Meiji Restoration. He founded the Mitsubishi company, introduced the first trains to Japan and his colourful life with his wife is said to be the inspiration behind the original Madame Butterfly.
His former home in Aberdeen was bought by Mitsubishi 20 years ago and plans are now underway to transform the building into an “ideas hub”, which could be used to strengthen business links with Japan.
Investment group Aberdeen Asset Management, which is 18 per cent owned by Mitsubishi, last year pledged to do whatever it takes to bring the property back to life.
Ms Hyslop said: “I’m delighted Toshima Ward will build on the success of the first Scotland Day with another celebration this year, and welcome the Mayor’s generous offer of assistance for our artists and performers to bring their work to Tokyo. Our cultural and artistic legacy clearly proceeds us.
“We’re continuing to develop strong cultural links with Japan and this year the Edinburgh Festivals will welcome their Japanese counterparts to develop future collaborations, while our galleries are working together to display the best of our visual arts.”