Tokyo is the home of some of the world’s greatest tech companies. From Hitachi to Sony, and Panasonic to Rakuten, chances are everyone in the UK has some form of Japanese tech in their home, desk or pocket.
However, while the Softbank Vision Fund sent shockwaves across Europe with enormous investments into tech start-ups and scale-ups, Japan’s wider ecosystem has struggled to keep pace with the US and China’s, increasingly becoming less and less associated with innovation on the global stage, billion-dollar tech companies and entrepreneurial talent.
Last week, I was in Tokyo to launch Tech Japan Advocates, a private sector network designed to accelerate the growth of tech start-ups and entrepreneurs across Japan and address the issues they are facing.
During the week I met many entrepreneurs, start-ups and representatives from the Japanese tech giants that dominated the 80s and 90s. Considering Japan should be a major trading partner for the UK in post-Brexit Britain – it became very clear that cross-border collaboration with London’s tech sector is in its nascency.
There was definite interest and a clear appetite to learn more. The Department for International Trade is bringing across a delegation of senior Japanese tech leaders for London Tech Week and a large collection of local tech entrepreneurs came to the British Embassy in Tokyo to hear about investment opportunities in the UK.
However, when asked where they thought the main tech hubs were beyond the US, the Japanese tech leaders I met told me they would immediately think of Finland, Israel and Canada.
Two of the most successful tech companies in London from the last five years were represented at the British Embassy in Tokyo but they also spoke of the lack of brand recognition they experienced in Japan and their total reliance on the British government to make connections with local recruiters, marketing agencies and co-working spaces. In markets like Japan, a reliance on Britain’s reputation as a leading digital hub does not necessarily open doors all on its own.
As the head of a private sector network of 7,500 tech experts in the UK, it is easy for me to forget that we have a significant task ahead proving that the UK is a viable market for expansion and investment.
Despite the UK’s long-term dominance as the tech capital of Europe, record levels of tech investment and a significantly larger digital workforce than any other country across the continent, the entrepreneurs I met in Japan were more likely to ask me about Brexit than details of our thriving tech ecosystem.
As any entrepreneur knows, challenges can always be turned into opportunities, and the same is true for the relationship between tech hubs in the UK and Japan. It is clear that Japan is facing its own existential problems around its tech start-ups and scale-ups. They are very aware they aren’t producing tech unicorns, they know they need to collaborate with international markets to scale their companies and they know that international tech talent from countries like the UK can fuel the growth and innovation they need. With the US-China trade war showing little sign of slowing down, Japan can carve out a unique position for itself on the global stage, as a nation with the capital and ambition to re-enter at the top.
There is a real opportunity for UK tech companies to secure investment from Japan and scale their companies in the lucrative Japanese market. However, to realise these opportunities requires a concerted effort from the public and private sector to champion British technology, and the tech ecosystem in London, as globally competitive markets and a home to world-class tech firms.
The great tragedy of Brexit is that we are expending significant energy and effort discussing, debating and planning for something that the international community at best finds confusing, and, at worst, a reason to look elsewhere. We need to turn our attentions to our global brand before its too late and remind the world that the UK is open for business.
Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates