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Japan rooting for 'Remain' in Brexit vote

As the UK votes in the EU referendum, Japanese companies, politicians and the media are united in their desire to see Britain remain part of the European Union. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

As the British people vote on whether or not to remain a part of the European Union, Japanese companies with significant business interests in the UK are united in their desire for the British people to vote against Brexit.

The issue has increasingly become a matter of debate in Japan as Britain enters the final week of political claim and counter-claim, with business leaders, media editorials and individual companies expressing hope that voters will opt to stay closely linked to Europe.

Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waded into the debate, telling Prime Minister David Cameron that pulling out would be a mistake.

"Japan very clearly would prefer Britain to remain within the EU," Abe said at a press conference during his visit to London in May.

"British membership is also best for Japanese investors within the UK," he said, "Many Japanese companies set up their operations in the UK precisely because the UK is a gateway to the EU."

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) meets his counterpart, Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe (L), during a press conference in N10 Downing street in London, Britain, 05 May 2016 (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Arrizabalaga)

Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waded into the 'Brexit' debate

And in what might be a warning shot across those in favor of the UK opting out, he added, "A vote to leave would make the UK less attractive as a destination for Japanese investment."

1,000 Japanese companies

There are around 1,000 Japanese companies with operations in Britain - many have made the UK their European headquarters.

"As the Japanese company with the largest investments in the United Kingdom, purely from a business standpoint, Fujitsu supports the UK remaining in the EU," a spokesman for Fujitsu Ltd. in Tokyo told DW. "This investment has brought about the employment of thousands of people in the country, a figure which currently stands at around 14,000.

"When making investment commitments in the UK, one factor we take into consideration is that the UK is an EU member state as well as the benefits that come with that," he added.

The company is looking to develop its business across Europe, but the possibility of the UK leaving the EU "has an effect on this development," the spokesman underlined.

For Japanese companies, the UK is the second-largest destination of their investment on a flow basis after the United States, with around Y10 trillion (85.45 billion euros) worth of investment on a stock basis.

Japanese car manufacturers have, in the past, been encouraged to set up manufacturing facilities in the UK, but are showing signs of jitters as the vote approaches.

"The current situation with the UK as a member of the EU enables businesses like Honda to operate in a free, large and single market," the company said in a statement issued to DW. "If the UK were no longer part of the EU, it is not clear what conditions would exist. In general, businesses prefer conditions of certainty."

The company has invested more than 1.3 billion pounds (1.64 billion euros) in manufacturing plants in Berkshire and Wiltshire in recent years, although the company declined to comment on suggestions that it might opt to move its European operations to mainland Europe should the "out" vote win the day.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. has become synonymous with the northeast of England, where its vast plant turns out more vehicles each year than the entire Italian automobile industry.

Over three years from 2010, Nissan invested 612 million pounds (771.81 million euros) in a new battery plant at the Sunderland facility for the production of the new LEAF electric vehicle and the Qashqai. That brought the Yokohama-based firm's total investment up to 3.3 billion pounds over the previous 25 years, while the 5,452 workers employed by Nissan in Sunderland is the largest number the facility has ever employed.

"We have a rich heritage in the UK, with 30 years of manufacturing and engineering presence and remain committed to building and engineering cars in the country," said Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of the company, in a statement.

"Our preference as a business is, of course, that the UK stays within Europe - it makes the most sense for jobs, trade and costs," he said. "For us, a position of stability is more positive than a collection of unknowns."

Nissan also declined to "speculate" on its response to a vote to leave the EU, including the relocation of its manufacturing facilities to mainland Europe to take advantage of the benefits of membership of the union.

Nissan car (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Deck)

There are around 1,000 Japanese companies with operations in Britain

'As competitive as possible'

"We obviously want the Nissan UK plant and engineering center to remain as competitive as possible when compared with other global entities, and each future investment opportunity will be taken on a case-by-case basis, just as it is now," Ghosn said.

Feelings are the same in other sectors.

"As the third-largest branded soft drinks supplier in the UK, the European Single Market plays a significant role in how we operate," a spokesperson for Suntory Holdings Ltd. said. "We continue to work to support regulation at an EU level that is consistent, proportionate and that can help to drive economic growth."

The company, which has its European headquarters in west London, added that it "looks forward to continuing to grow our contribution to the UK through innovation, job creation and skills."

In an editorial this week, the Asahi Shimbun declared Brexit to be the "worst outcome for the UK, Europe and the rest of the world."

"Britain is a major power that ought to be acting as a strong leader in encouraging international cooperation, not a nation that turns its back on European unity to try to go it alone," it concluded. "We strongly hope Britain will choose to remain in the EU."