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Today in history... first taste of 'Made in Japan'

12:00am | & News

In the 21st century, Japanese technology plays a part in most of our lives, whether it's the mobile phone you use, the TV you watch or the car you drive. But it was a different story in the early 1960s, when the latest innovations from the Far East were only just arriving on our shores.

In one case, they were quite literally arriving on our shores, when a purpose-built floating trade fair docked at Tilbury, in London, in June 1964, showcasing more than 22,000 Japanese products. The Sakura Maru would remain at Tilbury for four days, welcoming aboard more than 18,000 business people and 10,000 members of the public to visit the floating trade fair. 

After that it would continue on a tour of Europe, docking at major ports. Jointly funded by the companies exhibiting products and the Japanese government, the promotional tour was costing £400,000 – a significant sum in 1964, when the average UK house price was around £3,000.

Following its demoralising defeat in World War Two, Japan had worked hard to rebuild its economy, with successes in trade seen as a way of restoring national pride. Its industrious workers quickly built a reputation for high quality goods at a low price, especially in electronic s, and western countries were starting to take notice.

The floating trade fair had been planned so that each deck of the Sakura Maru carried lighter products than the one below, ensuring the stability of the ship. The lowest level contained textile, agricultural and other machinery, all in full working order ready to demonstrate to potential buyers. Another of the lower decks was devoted to the burgeoning Japanese motor industry, packed with the latest models of cars and the motorbikes which would go on to almost kill off the once-mighty British motorcycle industry.

Higher decks held smaller items, countless household goods, photographic and scientific equipment, and some real innovations in technology, including a very early incarnation of a public video phone – a phone booth including a screen so you could see the person you were talking to.

A transistor radio the size of two old pennies and a portable TV you could hold in the palm of your hand and plug into the cigarette lighter in your car were other examples of Japan's innovators giving a glimpse into the future. Even the brand new ship itself was an exhibit and 'for sale', with customers able to order an exact replica from the Japanese shipbuilders for just £3.5 million.

The floating exhibition proved a huge success, generating some of the first major import deals from Japan to the UK. Over the following decades that trade would grow massively, to the point where it seemed almost anything you bought in a UK shop had the words 'Made in Japan' stamped on it.

As British industries suffered, trade unionists called for limits on Japanese imports, but by the 1970s several Japanese companies were also opening manufacturing plants in the UK, led by zip manufacturer YKK in 1971. Today the trade is far less one-sided, with British exports to Japan worth almost £10 billion.

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