Tokyo Story: in Japan, adoption is a business decision, one that holds valuable trade lessons for the UK

By Laura Savage
Best for Britain's Campaign Officer

The business of adoption in Japan is just that: business. It’s why 98 per cent of people adopted there are adult men aged 20-30.

You read that right. To Western ears, this fact may seem strange, even unbelievable. But it’s true. 

It’s a timely example of the dangers of trusting one’s own myopic vision, and of failing to realise that seemingly stable categories and fixed meanings can be, ultimately, subjective. 

How do you solve a problem like Succession?

The reason behind the staggering rates of adult adoption in Japan comes down to business. A process we see as quintessentially private in the UK, bringing a young child into a family, is in Japan a common boardroom tactic. Corporations can remain family-run, without compromising on talent, simply by adopting their most successful executives into the family. 

Some of Japan’s most iconic automotive companies, such as Suzuki and Toyota, have remained in the family for nearly a century through this practice. We’re a long way from Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks.

It’s a common problem among self-made entrepreneurs. You pull yourself up by your bootstraps, fighting every day to build up your business, and who do you have to inherit your empire? A spoiled heir raised in the lap of luxury you’ve created. 

History is littered with ineffective follow-up acts, from Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard ‘Tumbledown Dick’ Cromwell, to pampered Roman princeling Commodus. If you’ve ever watched Succession, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

Tradition and tantrums

Japanese corporate adoption tells us two things. Firstly, Japan will honour tradition, but will not compromise on results. Tradition dictates wealth be handed down through a male heir. Instead of changing the tradition, you bend the culture around it, merging quixotic tendencies with clear-eyed corporate strategy. Secondly, Japan will not abide the tantrums of an entitled nation, new on the international negotiation scene. 

Does this mean a company such as Nissan will be more or less likely to keep a factory in Sunderland, if the UK leaves the transition period without a European trade deal in place? If more cars can be built faster in a new, different European city, such as Marseilles or Frankfurt, will tradition or efficiency prevail? We’ll see. 

The EU agreed a deal with Japan in February last year. Europe secured lowered tariffs on wine and cheese sold as luxury goods to Japan, while scrapping tariffs on Japanese cars and auto parts. The UK’s negotiating objective is to secure a similar deal to the existing EU-Japan deal, with additional benefits for UK businesses’.

But Bill Emmott, chairman of the Japan Society of the UK and former editor-in-chief of The Economist, told the Express:  “Japanese companies have in the past treated the UK as a gateway to Europe, as well as buying a lot of components from EU suppliers for their UK operations, so they have to treat the UK and EU markets as being essentially connected.” 

Offering Japan replicated lowered tariffs on auto-parts is useless when the fragile and complicated supply chain of automotive manufacture is interrupted between the UK and the Continent. Japanese investment in the UK, especially in the automotive sector, will be undoubtedly damaged by anything less than a comprehensive free trade arrangement with the EU. Somehow, I doubt Japanese business would look kindly on a nation which trades on the achievements of others, without having put the work in themselves.

Data, financial services and agriculture are the big topics up for discussion in a Japan-UK deal. In stark contrast to our trade talks with the US, Japan is the one cautious about our food and animal welfare standards. British beef and lamb were allowed back on Japanese supermarket shelves only in January of last year, having been banned since the 1996 BSE outbreak. 

But that doesn’t mean Japan will hold the UK to higher standards – in fact it could be a gateway to all sorts of cyber mischief. The EU ensures our personal data is localised on servers within the bloc. In the event of a no-deal, there are no guarantees the UK will share the EU’s commitment to data protection, especially as Japan is a strong proponent of data centralisation. 

No pressure then

A trade deal with Japan has been touted as the cornerstone of a new ‘global Britain’. According to Government figures, a UK-Japan deal could  increase trade flows between  both countries by £15.2billion, resulting in a £1.5billion boost for the UK economy. Ultimately, an FTA with Japan could be a stepping stone to membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), opening up markets around the world. 

But, judging by how an image of our International Trade Secretary allegedly on the phone with Japan's Minister for Trade went viral last year, the British public are as unconvinced by this as they are by Liz Truss’ weirdly staged office.

Counting your corporate chickens before they’ve hatched


There’s another reason to take Liz Truss’ trade triumphalism with a pinch of salt. According to official Government forecasts, a much-celebrated deal with New Zealand will have close to zero benefit for the UK economy, and could actually make it shrink slightly.

But most worrying is this question: will the UK be able to secure any kind of deal with Japan if we leave the transition period without a European deal in place? Bill Emmott answered the question unequivocally: “There is zero chance of a UK-Japan trade deal until the EU-UK trade arrangements have been agreed.” 

If a Japanese corporation is prepared to chuck out the rightful heir in favour of a better corporate strategist, there seems little reason to think Mr Emmott is wrong.

To pretend, as the Government has implicitly, that a deal with Japan could make up for leaving the transition period without a deal with the EU is absurd. This is not to say a comprehensive UK-Japan trade deal, which benefits both partners, would not be advantageous. But not only would this deal represent likely a fraction of the economic benefit of a deal with our nearest and the largest trading bloc, but the former is almost entirely dependent on the latter.

Historical relatives

Japan’s civil code has not changed since World War II. This is a nation which for more than two centuries instituted Sakoku, prohibiting nearly all travel in or out of Japan. Legend has it the Tokugawa shogunate insisted ships be built with holes near the waterline, to stop sailors venturing out into rough open water. 

While Japan is now renowned for its commitment to international free trade, Sakoku turned Japanese culture into one of the world’s most enduring and idiosyncratic cultures. Old habits die hard. 

While the specifics may differ hugely, our outlooks do not. Both the UK and Japan are archipelago nations with a complicated imperial past. Much of the fanfare surrounding this as yet inchoate deal has traded on the image of Japan many hold in our heads – energetic, prosperous, technologically advanced. Equally, much of the Government’s strategy in 2021 has to appeal to the image we hold of ourselves: an island nation, striding out into the world, completely free to pursue its own agenda.

But, just as no man is an island, no island is truly disconnected. And, just as Japanese corporations have not let a romanticised commitment to tradition cloud their pragmatism, we should not be fooled by our own self-image. 

For countless economic, social and political reasons, we must look across the Channel, to our closest allies, before we venture out into the wider world. 

Because Japan is unlikely to welcome Britain into its family until Britain has proved itself a worthy trading partner.

By Laura Savage
Best for Britain's Campaigns Officer

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