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Abe throws weight behind Cameron in Brexit debate

[LONDON] Prime Minister Shinzo Abe weighed into the Brexit debate, saying the UK would be "less attractive" to Japanese investors if it leaves the European Union.

Japanese companies see Britain as a "gateway" to the 28- nation bloc, Mr Abe told a press conference in London on Thursday following talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Japan "very clearly" wants British people to vote to remain in the EU in the June 23 referendum, he said. "Japan attaches importance to our relationship with the UK as a gateway to the EU. A vote to leave would make the UK less attractive as a destination for Japanese investment." Mr Abe made his comments as new figures underscored the impact the referendum, which Mr Cameron called to placate Euro-skeptics in his Conservative Party, is having on businesses in Britain. Markit Economics said the economy is "near stalling" after its factory, construction and services indexes all fell more than forecast last month.

Mr Abe is the latest world leader to back Cameron's campaign to keep Britain in the EU, with US President Barack Obama and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key among those voicing support in recent weeks. In evidence to lawmakers on Wednesday, Mr Cameron argued that no country friendly to the UK is recommending a so-called Brexit.

Mr Obama's intervention in particular was singled out by the "Remain" camp as an indication of the difficulties Britain may face if it leaves the EU. The US president said during a three-day visit last month that the UK would go to the "back of the queue" when it comes to negotiating a US trade deal. Mr Abe echoed this sentiment, saying Japan's priority would be negotiating a trade deal with the EU.

Brexit campaigners said Mr Abe was asking Britons to retain a loss of sovereignty that Japan itself wouldn't accept.

"Much of the public will be skeptical of the Japanese prime minister's 'do as I say, not as we do attitude,"' Matthew Elliott, who heads the Vote Leave group, said in a statement. "Japanese bosses argued that we would be diminished if we didn't join the euro, so similar warnings about the referendum further lack credibility." More than 1,300 Japanese companies have a presence in the UK, employing more than 140,000 people, Mr Cameron told reporters. Britain benefits more from Japanese investment than any other country apart from the US. By the end of 2014, Japan had investments in the UK valued at US$55 billion.

While "this is a matter to be decided by the British people," Mr Abe said, "Japan's interests are also at stake." BLOOMBERG