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Getting to know FT’s Tokyo Bureau Chief, Robin Harding

Robin Harding is the FT’s Tokyo Bureau Chief. Until 2015, he was based in Washington covering the US Federal Reserve, the Treasury and the IMF. Before his current role, he spent five years as FT’s Economist Editor in Washington, and two years as FT Tech Reporter in Tokyo.

Q. How long have you been in Japan?

I’ve come and gone. This is my third time in Japan: I was a student doing my Masters degree at Hitotsubashi (a long time ago!) and then I was a reporter in Tokyo from 2008 to 2010 covering technology companies. Then I came back in 2015, so if you add it up it's getting to about 9 years now.

Q. And you are fluent in Japanese?

I wish! But we all do our interviews in Japanese, that's required (for the role) I think.

Q. What is on your mind when you are writing about Japan?

I think about our world news coverage of Japan in 3 main buckets:

  1. Japan's economy
    Abenomics, the Bank of Japan's monetary stimulus, this year’s consumption tax rise, the yen - what's happening in the economy overall.
  2. Regional geopolitics
    Japan's relationship with South Korea, talks with Russia over the disputed islands, China, the relationship with Trump and the US, the competition with China for influence in south-east Asia, the Senkaku Islands.
  3. Japan as an example
    The third bucket is slightly different, it's what I call "Japan as an example".Japan is the world's fastest ageing country, the first to have zero interest rates, and “there are many things that Japan does well that the rest of the world doesn't” so these stories are saying to our readers outside Japan, “Hey look at what’s happening in Japan. This could happen to you.” Or, “This is a good idea. You could copy this.”

Q. What should we look out from Japan coverage in 2019?

If we think more about the short term news agenda, we have the imperial abdication coming up. We have Brexit in the UK and Japan's role in that. We have the G20 in June, upper house elections, the consumption tax hike in autumn, ongoing diplomacy with Russia, problems with South Korea, plus Trump is visiting in May and again in June.

So those are news events, but we think about them in terms of how they fit in to the three buckets I mentioned. For example, the upper house election won't be a big story for us by itself, but if it affects the consumption tax hike, and therefore the economy, then it becomes a big story for us through that link.

But really, corporate news is the biggest thing for us in Japan and there are several huge stories, most obviously Carlos Ghosn, who continues to be the most read story from Japan by a long way.

Second I would say is Softbank. The Vision Fund is having an impact around the world through investments such as Uber and WeWork: these are some of the biggest business news stories globally, and there's a strong Japan link in Softbank.

Also, the car makers are always very important for us, and they face big challenges with electric vehicles and self-driving. So we’re watching the effect of that on the Japanese auto industry.

Then there's a big area of stories which are about changes in corporate Japan: governance, various quality scandals and the decline of traditional corporate structures such as cross-shareholding. All of that will generate news for us in the near future.

Q. What can Japanese readers expect when they are reading about Japan in the FT?

 When we write about Japan, we're thinking about a global readership. Japanese readers are interested in the “outside take” on what's happening in Japan.

“What we hope to give to our Japanese readers is the occasional surprise perspective.”

Something about Japan might be very striking and unusual to a foreign eye, whereas to a Japanese person, it may seem to be the norm. It may help readers to look at their own country in a different way.

Q. Why do you think it is important for a junior person to read the FT, rather than the C-suites?

I had a close university friend who studied mathematics and became an actuary. He was in his 20s and worked for several years but did not get promoted. When he asked his boss about this, the answer was: 

"You’re doing your work well, but you don't have any commercial awareness. You don't know the issues affecting our clients, so you don't understand their problems - go and read the FT."

That's the reason why a younger person should read the FT. If you want to understand what the decision makers are dealing with, it's more important for you (junior) to read the FT than them (C-suite). It doesn't mean you have to study it, “just scanning the FT will make you see the world in a slightly different way.”

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