Portuguese interest in developing exports to Japan drives its strong interest in the EU-Japan free trade agreement

All administration officials interviewed had an overall good image of Japan that was mostly based on the view that Japan is a reliable partner, an efficient and coherent international actor, with whom Portugal shares various interests and political values and has solid and stable ties. Officials also mentioned that in the last five years or so bilateral relations between the two countries have progressed enormously, mostly as a consequence of more high ranking diplomacy that materialised in mutual official state visits of the prime ministers.

However, officials were also unanimous in saying that Japan is not as important as it used to be, and that there are countries in the Asia-Pacific region that are currently more exciting to Portugal (namely India and China).

Portugal views Japan as the economic power it really is: still the third largest world economy (in terms of nominal GDP), and an innovative and flexible economy, with a highly competitive market of 126 million citizens that are sophisticated consumers with a strong purchasing power and a love for foreign goods.

Portuguese-Japanese bilateral trade and investment relations have remained very much unchanged over the last 30 years. They are still modest and clearly in favour of Japan but there are potential markets for Portuguese exports to Japan that Portugal is keen to exploit. That is why Portugal is a firm supporter of the EU-Japan Free Trade Agreement currently being negotiated. The Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been particularly active in the defence and debate of the EU-Japan Agreement, including organising several colloquia. Portugal has also invited Japan to be a permanent of observer of the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries.

In terms of security, Portugal perceives Japan as an actor which is increasingly feeling threatened by both China and North Korea. The regional balance in the Asia-Pacific region shifting, creating new pressure on Japan’s security and foreign policies. The recent debate that led to the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution was evaluated by Portuguese analysts and officials as a logical reaction to China’s reinforcement as a regional power and its rising as a global military power.

Japan’s soft power image in Portugal’s civil society is still rather good but starting to change. For the last two decades Japan has been seen by the Portuguese public opinion as a modern and vibrant society, in the forefront of high-tech gadgets and as a global trend-setter in culture and fashion. Some Japanese “goods” that still have a strong impact on Portugal’s civil society are sushi and related food, anime and manga. These last two have marked strongly an entire generation but are beginning to fade out. 

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.