The Nikkei 225 Stock Average is Japan’s premier stock index and a barometer of the Japanese economy and stock market. It gauges the behavior of 225 large Japanese companies, covering a broad swath of industries. In fact, it is considered Japan’s equivalent to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It includes the top 225 blue-chip companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

You cannot invest directly in an index. But if you are looking to gain exposure to the stocks the Nikkei 225 includes the best way is via an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracks the yen-denominated index.

Performance Background

The Nikkei 225 does not accurately reflect how stock averages tend to steadily and exponentially grow. On Dec. 29, 1989, the Nikkei achieved an historical high of 38,957.44 intraday, before closing at 38,915.87. Throughout that entire decade, the Nikkei grew sixfold, however, it since dropped those gains. Notably, on March 10, 2009, the Nikkei closed at 7,054.98--a whopping 81.9% below its 1989 peak.

Two working days after a giant earthquake rattled the northeast section of Japan on March 15, 2011, the Nikkei plummeted more than 10%, to 8605.15--a drop of 1,015 points. The index continued to fall during that entire year, hitting a low of 8160.01 on November 25. That year, the Nikkei dropped more than 17%, finishing at 8455.35, representing the lowest year-end price in over 30 years.

As of February 5, 2019, the Nikkei 225 was at 20,844.45.

Additional Background

Like the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Nikkei 225 Stock Average is a price-weighted equity index. Ranking of companies is determined by stock price, which differs from other major indexes where market capitalization is used in calculations. Calculated since September of 1950 (retroactively to May of 1949), it is Asia’s oldest index and also commonly referred to as the Nikkei 225, Nikkei Index and the Nikkei.

The index is reviewed annually in September and if changes are made they are instituted in October.

Holdings

Some of the most well-known brands in the world are companies included in the Nikkei 225. Canon Inc. (CAJ), Panasonic Corp. (PCRFY), Sony Corp. (SNE), Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY), Toyota Motor Corp. (TM), Mazda Motor Corp. (MZDAY) and Honda Motor Co. (HMC) are among them.

Stocks in the index fall under the following sectors: technology, financials, consumer goods, materials, capital goods/others, and transportation and utilities. In all, the index includes companies from 36 different industries.

ETFs

Buying and managing each individual stock in the Nikkei 225 is not practical, not to mention the cost and tax implications. As an individual investor, you can gain exposure through exchanged-traded funds whose underlying assets correlate to the Nikkei 225. ETFs are essentially a basket of stocks that represent an underlying index.

Unlike mutual funds, which are priced at the end of the day, ETFs trade throughout the day. Their prices fluctuate like stocks, essentially trading like a stock. Like mutual funds, ETFs offer diversification through one investment. They have lower expenses than actively managed funds.

Japanese ETFs

Several ETFs tracking the Nikkei 225 trade on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. They include Blackrock Japan’s iShares Nikkei 225 ETF, Nomura Asset Management’s Nikkei 225 Exchange Traded Fund (NTETF) and Daiwa Asset Management’s Daiwa ETF Nikkei 225.

In order to trade these ETFs, you’d need to open an account with a brokerage that enables you to buy and sell investments not listed on a U.S. exchange. Fidelity Investments and E*Trade Financial Corp. (ETFC) are among the discount brokers that offer international trading accounts.

Keep in mind that trading ETFs in their local markets has its complications. Tokyo Stock Exchange-listed ETFs are denominated in yen. In addition to monitoring the performance of the Nikkei 225, you will also have to consider exchange rate fluctuations between the yen and dollar.

The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Singapore also offer ETFs that track the Nikkei 225, some of which are cross-listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking to gain broad exposure to the Japanese stock market through investments whose underlying assets track the Nikkei 225, ETFs are the way to go, in particular, the U.S.-listed, dollar-denominated MAXIS Nikkei 225 Index ETF.