Theresa May's Japan visit will lay the foundations for the UK's future relationship - but the Prime Minister must attempt to allay concerns about life after Brexit, business groups have said.
May will meet with Emperor Akihito and her counterpart Shinzo Abe for three days from tomorrow to pave the way for free trade talks after the UK leaves the European Union, although official talks cannot begin until after Brexit.
May will be accompanied by a delegation of business leaders that will “showcase the strength of British business, the shared confidence in the UK-Japan economic relationship as we leave the EU, and the potential for future growth,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
However, May is also expected to be grilled by officials eager to gain clarity over the situation and what it means for Japanese businesses.
Shinichi Iida, minister for public diplomacy at the Japanese embassy, told the Today programme he was “concerned”
“It is no secret the Japanese government and also as well as lots of Japanese companies preferred the situation in which the UK would remain within the EU," Iida said. “However, what Japanese businesses are expecting in my view is the clarity and the predictability over the process to come, particularly the recent agreement within the UK government for the provisional period will be a very important factor because it will give the time and adaptability for the Japanese companies to adjust to a new environment after Brexit.”
Open Europe director Henry Newman told City A.M. Japan was "certainly playing hard to get", adding they were "perplexed" by current negotiations.
"The Prime Minister must provide assurances to Japan about what kind of country the UK wil be after Brexit – although it’s not just Japan who needs to know that, it’s all of us.
Businesses needed "clarity", he added, although acknowledged that was not currently in her gift. Despite this, the trip was vital to signal Japan's importance to the UK, particularly in light of China overshadowing of its East Asian neighbour.
The Institute of Directors' interim director of policy Edwin Morgan stressed that "we shouldn't get too hung up on talk of trade deals" ahead of Brexit but insisted there was "a lot of trade promotion the government can pursue in the meantime".
"In the long-term, the government will be judged not on the number of trade deals signed, but whether overall trade increases, and whether we can get our firms to increase exports to new markets," he added.
Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said the trip was "an important signal of the shared desire to see trade between our two countries grow further in the years to come".
He added: “Boosting two-way trade between the UK and Japan is a major opportunity. Chambers of commerce across the UK are pleased to be part of the effort to make that happen."
Ben Digby, international trade and investment director, at the CBI, added: “The Prime Minister’s visit is a really welcome sign that the UK is looking to forge strong international partnerships as it navigates a new trading future, post-Brexit.”
May’s trip is going ahead despite North Korea’s growing hostilities, with Pyongyang launching an intermediate-range missile over Japan’s Hokkaido island.
Citizens were told to take shelter when the missile, which crashed into the sea, was identified.
May, who dubbed the test “reckless” and illegal, plans to discuss the heightening tension in the region with Abe this week.