Commerce Connect Tokyo:
Aiming Toward Making Tokyo the Gateway to the Asia-Pacific

What measures are the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) taking to become the leading entry point for foreign businesses? We caught up with President Richard Lyle and Executive Director Sarah Backley to find out.
Richard Lyle and Sarah Backley in the shared office where BCCJ is based in Minato City, Tokyo. Both took up their current positions in 2022.

— How has it been adapting to your new roles?

Lyle: There's lots of synergy between what I do at the BCCJ and what I do for my regular company, Intralink, which brings tech companies into the Japanese market. My boss and colleagues, therefore, encouraged me to take on the role. For Sarah and me, it's been about building on the great jobs done by our predecessors while also modernizing the chamber.

Backley: I joined in 2020 just a few weeks before the pandemic, so both myself and the chamber are constantly learning and adapting. There is a lot of excitement now that  borders are open; we've just had the G7 Hiroshima Summit 2023, and it feels like there's so much focus on Japan right now from the rest of the world.

— What makes the BCCJ special?

Backley: We're only a three-person team, so our strength comes from our interns and 15 board members who support us on a voluntary basis. The fact that the core of our team is small means we can get to know individuals within the chamber network. If it were much bigger, the offerings might be more generic. Being more personal, we can offer our members a kind of curated package based on their needs.

Our members are generous as well. They give their time and share their expertise simply because they're part of this network. It's a special community. Another thing that I feel sets us apart is our programs that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. We can initiate conversations that are harder to talk about and often aren't spoken about in the Japanese media.

— How are Japan-U.K. relations right now?

Lyle: Exciting. The U.K. recently joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and before the G7 summit, the Hiroshima Accord was signed. It was also announced that Japanese firms are committed to investing close to £18 billion (about $23 billion) in the U.K. A lot of that investment is in things like wind power generation, offshore wind farm and semiconductors.

— What about British firms investing in Japan?

Lyle : Prime Minister Kishida Fumio set ambitious foreign direct investment (FDI) targets for the coming years and we're in discussion with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to make Japan more business-friendly in that respect. Historically, European companies have always seen Singapore as the gateway to the Asia-Pacific. We want to help change that perception and make Tokyo the city of choice. 

"For British businesses to succeed, they should do their homework, find the right partners, have a presence in Japan and prioritize face-to-face communication," Lyle says.

— Can you give us an example of a member of the BCCJ, either an individual or a company, that's thriving in Tokyo?

Backley: I'd like to pick out a partnership that grew between two of our members: Hilton Tokyo and Vega Japan (a technology service provider). They teamed up last year to create this virtual production studio with an incredible curved LED wall. It's the largest screen in any hotel ballroom in Japan and it's like nothing I've seen before. We witnessed the project grow, step-by-step. It's great when something like that comes to fruition and I'm told they'll now be replicating those screens in other Hiltons across the world. 

Lyle: I think the idea came from one of our breakfast meetings. It shows the importance of getting back to in-person events as that's where the magic happens. Their collaboration is one of many success stories we've had. An individual I'd like to highlight is Yokota Taisuke, our newest board member. He's the Japan brand director for Wimbledon Brewery and the Creative Director of Camping with Soul Japan (a premium glamping firm originally developed in Britain). As well as having great ideas, he's very passionate about Japan-U.K. relations and is always willing to give advice to anyone looking to get involved in exporting between the two countries. 

— How are things with Intralink?

Lyle: It was difficult when the pandemic first hit as companies were cutting costs, but after a few months we grew. We represent tech clients on the ground, which means we can fast-track their businesses development rather than them having to jump on a plane to come here. The borders being closed had a positive impact on our company during the pandemic, but I'm so glad that things have now opened up.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the BCCJ. A highly regarded organization, it serves a network of around 200 companies, and in total around 1,000 members.

— What are the advantages of doing business in Tokyo?

Backley: Many British people imagine Tokyo as this opposite world where everything is out of reach. After coming here, they see there are many similarities between the two countries in terms of how we both do business. We're trying to get people who are considering doing business in Japan to see those similarities. The pandemic helped as people were able to connect virtually. 

— What advice would you give to British companies and entrepreneurs thinking of doing business here?

Lyle: Do your homework. When many companies arrive in Japan, they meet the wrong person, get a no and think the opportunity hasgone. It hasn't. They just haven't met the right person. Finding the right partners is vital and that's where the chamber can help. I'd also emphasize the importance of having a presence here. Japan's still about face-to-face communication. It can be lucrative, but if you're not committed, you'll fail. 

— What can the TMG do to help British startups in Japan?

Lyle: I think scale-ups are more appropriate for the Japanese market than startups. In the past, perhaps the TMG chased after early-stage companies, which is understandable because if you get them early, they'll stay longer. The problem is that often they don't have the business model down and their products haven't been developed properly. If you don't have customers in your home market, getting them in Japan is going to be very challenging. Pitching to leading Japanese companies like Sony or Panasonic, you need to be ready and many startups aren't.

— Can you tell us about any upcoming events or initiatives at the BCCJ?

Backley: Generally, we do between four and seven events a month. These range from breakfasts and evening networking events to seminars on specific topics which we deem important for businesses to operate and thrive in Japan. We serve companies across over 40 industries, so the topics we cover at events vary. Our flagship event is the British Business Awards gala which this year will take place in November. It's a great opportunity for companies and individuals operating in the UK-Japan business ecosystem.

The British Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Interview and writing by Matthew Hernon
Photography by Anna Petek