The company's business in Asia benefited greatly from Japan's restoration of the Meiji leadership in 1868. Under the Meiji, Japan became a modern industrial state. Butterfield & Swire, which had opened an office near Tokyo in Yokohama the previous year, was ideally situated to take advantage of the growing strength of the Japanese economy.
In 1866 the Yokohama office, which for years had been dependent on the textile trade, began importing large quantities of sugar from Hong Kong and Taiwan in addition to soya beancake from China. Swire also handled Japanese exports of rice to Australia. In 1887 the company opened a second Japanese office in Kobe.
Swire's operations were paralyzed in 1937 when Japan launched its war of expansion against China. The company's interests in northern China and Shanghai were closed. Japanese landings on either side of the Hongkong peninsula isolated the colony from the nearby Chinese city of Guangzhou (Canton), forcing Swire to curtail virtually all of its trading operations with the mainland. On December 1, 1941, six days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops invaded Hong Kong. During the Japanese occupation all of Swire's Far Eastern activities were suspended. By the time of the Japanese surrender in September 1945 more than half of Swire's ships, the sugar refinery, and the dockyard had been destroyed.during the 1950s.
Shipping offices in Japan were reopened in 1974; Butterfield & Swire in Hong Kong was renamed John Swire & Sons (H.K.) Ltd. They no longer have an office in Japan.