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The British embassy in central Tokyo. Britain is selling some of the building to make way for luxury apartments. Photo: Shutterstock

Britain sells part of Tokyo embassy compound near imperial palace for luxury flat development

  • UK’s sale of part of the building likely includes deputy ambassador’s residence and swimming pool
  • Proceeds will go to solar panels for Tokyo compound, and upgrading embassy in New Delhi

The British government is selling a sizeable portion of its embassy in Japan for redevelopment into luxury flats and hopes to use part of the sale proceeds to upgrade the rest of the Tokyo compound and its missions elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

The land is being bought by Japan’s Mitsubishi Estate Group, which saw off five rival bidders, and has already been earmarked for an exclusive apartment complex.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London said proceeds of the sale would go to upgrades to the Tokyo compound, including making it “more modern and sustainable ... through solar panels and improving energy efficiency”.

Some of the cash will also be used to enhance diplomatic facilities elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region, including the embassy compound in New Delhi.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters

There has been no confirmation on how much money the British government will receive or the exact size of the plot of land being sold, but it is understood to be the southern end of the compound currently occupied by the deputy ambassador’s residence, staff accommodation, gardens and the embassy swimming pool.

The British embassy in Tokyo is an imposing building directly to the west of the imperial palace and only separated from the emperor’s primary residence by a moat. It previously belonged to a powerful feudal lord and was acquired in 1872.

It was badly damaged in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. A new building was completed in 1929 and remains in use today, with more recent additions.

It is not clear whether the sale will affect the large lawn and gardens of the official residence of Julia Longbottom, who in March became the first female ambassador to represent the UK in Japan.

Traditionally, the gardens have been used for diplomatic and other events throughout the year, including celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

Julia Longbottom (L), who became Britain’s ambassador to Japan this year. Photo: UK government, 2015

The foreign office was quick to emphasise that the reduction in the physical size of the diplomatic presence in Tokyo would have no impact on London’s commitment to its alliance with Japan.

Japan has also made clear its hopes that Britain will play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific’s economic and security situation.

“By constantly reviewing the set-up of our 270 overseas missions, we can deliver value for money for British taxpayers while we promote the UK’s interests around the world,” said the foreign office.

It pointed out that Prime Minister Boris Johnson underlined the importance the UK places on its “strategic partnership and friendship” with Japan when he spoke to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on October 13.

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Japan’s foreign ministry echoed that position, confirming that “the government of Japan has the honour to respect the decision of the UK government” on the sale of the land.

The ministry added that both governments “affirmed repeatedly on the occasion of talks between the prime ministers and the foreign ministers their mutual understanding to further strengthen Japan-UK relations”.

Reducing the UK’s physical presence in Tokyo does not send the best message, suggested Ben Ascione, an assistant professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Waseda University.

“Japan has been very positive about the role and presence of Britain in the region and the two sides have repeated the importance of security and a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific,” he said. “Something like this is symbolic – but at the same time I do not believe it will undermine the general direction of Japan intensifying its engagement with Britain.”

Japan and Britain schedule security talks, aiming to counter China in Indo-Pacific

In August, Japan welcomed the deployment of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its accompanying fleet to the region. Tokyo is concerned at the growing military and geopolitical aggression being shown by China and has been seeking to build on its security ties with long-standing allies.

No longer a part of the European Union, the UK applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in February.

The application is currently being considered by the 11 original signatory nations, with Japan strongly championing the inclusion of Britain as the only European member of a trade bloc that at present represents more than 13 per cent of global GDP.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Britain selling part of embassy in Tokyo