You would think that the Brexit phenomenon would resonate in Japan. Our two countries and peoples have so much in common: proud island nations, constitutional monarchies, strong maritime traditions, a powerful sense of cultural distinctness, and of course, somewhat ambivalent relations with our continental neighbours. Plus, we both love tea, dislike tipping, and insist on driving on the left.

We share a cussed independent streak too, a dislike of being told what to do. The British obstinately cling on to imperial measurements and, thank God, steer clear of the Euro. For their part, the Japanese persist in the ludicrously expensive maintenance of their whaling fleet (at the cost of near unanimous international opprobrium) even though there are only about three people in Japan who eat blubber any more. It is, for them, purely a matter of national pride – it shows the world that no one can dictate to the Japanese.

The Japanese view of immigration echoes, at a significantly increased volume, the concerns of some Leave voters in the UK. Despite only 1.5% of Japanese residents being foreigners, there is deep concern about the potential impact of immigration on national culture.

The Japanese are deeply conservative and fully believe that “when you get a thing the way you want it, you should leave it alone”. As for the concept of a common Asian currency, surrendering jurisdiction to a foreign court or pooled sovereignty, the very ideas would seem ludicrous and unthinkable to your average Japanese person. The terms “open borders” or “unrestricted immigration” are probably untranslatable.

All of which might suggest a certain sympathy with the Leave campaign. Yet when the Brexit victory was announced last year the reaction in Japan was one of deep shock and utter bafflement.


Partly this was just characteristic prudence: for the exceptionally cautious Japanese, whose council gardeners wear helmets to prune rose bushes, Britain’s dramatic move was perceived as pure recklessness. It was as if a well-loved and respected relation had announced he had quit his strong and stable job and decided to go and live in a tree-house in the forest. There was genuine, rather touching, concern.

But the EU’s popularity in Japan has deep roots, thanks largely to one man: Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. Almost forgotten in the west, the politician and philosopher was a significant and influential figure in Japan, a romantic symbol of all that is believed to be good and hopeful about the EU project. He is still a source of local pride.

Kalergi was the son of Mitsuko Aoyama (daughter of a major Japanese land-owner and antiques dealer) and a dashing Austrian diplomat stationed in Tokyo at the end of the 19th century. According to the official story she rushed to his aid when his horse slipped on some ice, their eyes met and….well, you can imagine the rest. They ended up living in a castle in Austria and having 5 children, one of whom, Richard, dedicated his life to the pan-European movement – the ideological foundation of the European Union.

Kalergi was, it seems, responsible for much of the symbolism, paraphernalia and artefacts of the EU; he chose Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ as the official anthem, and may have had a hand in the design of the flag, which bears some resemblance to the Hinomaru, the official flag of Japan. He is believed to be the model for the Victor Laszlo character in Casablanca, seen by some as the personification of pan-European idealism.

Kalergi returned to Japan several times and, crucially to his enduring legend, became known and admired by the president of NHK, Japan’s public service broadcaster. The Japanese became familiar with Kalergi’s story through television serials and documentaries and developed an affection for both their local hero, and the Union he helped to found.
How much Kalergi’s influence is a factor on today’s decision makers is hard to quantify, but ideas and attitudes, once settled in Japan, are very hard to dislodge, and the general perception that the EU project is something to be wholeheartedly supported (if not perhaps emulated) seems to persist.

Does any of this matter? Very possibly, yes. For as the clock ticks and the air grows stale in the Brussels negotiating room, the impetus for development may come in the end through a nudge from a powerful, outside agency.

The British may think they have Trump on their side but the EU, if the joyful face of Donald Tusk as he shook hands with Japanese premier Shinzo Abe is anything to go by, the EU think they have the Japanese on theirs.

Time for a visit to Tokyo Mrs May?

Philip Barrie is a writer based in Tokyo