Israeli delegation in Tokyo for trade talks

After years of sitting on the sidelines, Japan looks to strengthen commercial ties with the Start-Up nation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, January 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, January 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A high-level Israeli delegation is in Japan this week looking to overcome years of neglected trade relations and explore investment opportunities.

Leading the mission is Ohad Cohen, head of the Foreign Trade Administration in the Israeli Ministry of Economy, who is accompanied by Israeli business representatives from the fields of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, agro-biotech, diagnostics and health IT.

Trade between the two countries is growing, and plans are underway for closer economic ties, as R&D agreements signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Japanese leader Shinzo Abe at their May 2014 meeting in Tokyo and January 2015 summit in Jerusalem come into effect.

The talks in Tokyo with Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will focus on promoting exports and foreign investments and strengthening commercial ties between the two countries.

Long reluctant to engage Israel because of fear of upsetting its Arab oil suppliers, or because of cultural differences, things have begun to change after Japan met the irresistible force of Israel’s technology success, said Vered Farber, director of the Asian Institute, an Israeli organization that has long been seeking to convince both Japanese and Israeli companies that there was much to be gained from working together.

“The Japanese finally realized that there is a Silicon Wadi in the Middle East that rivals California’s Silicon Valley, and they don’t want to get left behind,” Farber told the Times of Israel. “It took them awhile to realize it, but they have finally begun to understand that Israel may have what it takes to keep their economy dynamic and growing.”

While other Asian countries – China and South Korea, most notably – have been snapping up Israeli tech, Japan has sat on the side watching the action. No longer, said Farber: “Japanese companies used to concentrate solely on the domestic market, but in recent years they have become much more attuned to the international market. As a result, they have become much more aware of Israel and what if offers.”

The ongoing slowdown in the country – China this year surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy – has also awakened the Japanese to the need to innovate, said Farber, “and they realize there are few countries as innovative as Israel.”

Among the technologies Japan is shopping for in Israel are cybersecurity, mobile apps and robotics.

“Japanese are the longest-lived people in the world on average, and the government s concerned about getting the resources needed to ensure the health and safety of this population,” she said. “Israeli companies have developed many technologies, from robotics to medical devices to communication tech, that can help elderly people live more comfortably and safely.”

In January, Japan’s Takeda Pharmaceuticals teamed up with American firm Johnson & Johnson to open a pharma-tech incubator in Israel. The incubator is one of five innovation centers sponsored by J&J worldwide, and is meant “to find novel ways of advancing the most promising early stage science,” said Patrick Verheyen, Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, London.

“The formation of the new biotechnology incubator in Israel is the product of an important collaboration between government, industry and venture capital that demonstrates a multi-partner approach in practice,” said Verheyen. “The collaboration provides a unique platform to support and advance new companies with not only funding, but also strategic advice from both venture capital and industry pharmaceutical development experts.”

The fruits if that collaboration could be used by Johnson & Johnson, as well as Takeda, as the basis for new products.

According to Cohen, the Japanese economy and society have been undergoing a unique process of change and openness, which presents a golden opportunity for Israel – as a source of knowledge and global exporter of advanced technology – to increase cooperation and tighten economic relations with this country.

“Following years of efforts on the Israeli side to promote these talks, one of the reasons for the dialogue at this time is the tightening relations between Israel and Japan,” said Noa Asher, Head of the Israeli Economic and Trade Mission to Japan. “This dialogue and the expected results will strengthen economic cooperation between Israel and Japan in the future.”

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