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The strength of the U.S. economic heartland

Relations between the United States and Japan are at an all-time high. While most coverage is given to Japan’s ties to the East and West coasts, the U.S. Midwest has remained a major participant in strengthening that relationship. A clear sign of that commitment was evident during the annual U.S. Midwest -Japan Conference held in Tokyo last September.

“This time, as many as five governors participated in the Midwest US-Japan Conference and for the first time in the history of this conference, the prime minister of Japan received the governors from the Midwest. That was a clear sign that Japan was shining a light on the Midwest of the United States,” Consul General of Japan in Chicago Naoki Ito said.

The Consulate of Japan in Chicago is a good example of the longevity of this relationship. Last December, it celebrated its 120th anniversary.

At the U.S. Midwest-Japan Conference in Tokyo last September (from left to right), Kikkoman Foods Inc. Secretary Milton Neshek, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, conference co-chairman and Kikkoman Corp. Honorary Chairman Yuzaburo Mogi, conference co-chairman and Winston & Strawn Partner W. Gordon Dobie, U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty, Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, and Masuda Funai Eifert & Mitchell Ltd. President Tom McMenamin

“The business climate is getting better. The Midwest enjoys a central location and has good infrastructure, quality of life, universities and workforce. The Midwesterners and Japanese share a common work ethic. That’s really an important thing for us to remember and share with people in Japan,” Ito said.

As the first ever non-Japanese head of a Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) office, Ralph Inforzato has contributed much to championing trade ties between Japan and the Midwest, given that some Japanese businesses have a misconception that investing in the United States is difficult.

“Our JETRO chairman, Hiroyuki Ishige, wants us to develop a ‘Talk to JETRO First’ message. I want Japanese companies that are considering expansion to the Midwest to talk to JETRO first because we can help them identify who they should talk to depending on their investment needs in the American heartland,” Inforzato explained.

“And, just as important, when an American company plans to either initiate an investment in Japan or considers adding to an existing investment, again, it can talk to JETRO first. We will make every effort to meet their investment needs in Japan. When a Japanese company invests in the Midwest, it invests in the good leadership reflected by its governors, mayors and state and local economic development professionals,” he said.

And what will it take to succeed in the Midwest? Inforzato has this to say: “There is only one key to success. Hire passionate and dedicated workers that will enable a company to sustain business growth. That is the key.”

ILLINOIS

The Prairie State has long served as a gateway to the Midwest. With an incredibly diverse economy, Illinois has offered a large variety of opportunities for investment and business collaboration. Known traditionally for its manufacturing and automotive industries, the state has also developed strong pharmaceutical, health care, bioscience, food processing, distribution, logistics and transportation sectors.

“As governor, my top priority is to expand our economic opportunities for the people of Illinois, across our nation and around the world. And there is no better partner for the people of Illinois than the people of Japan,” said Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“The friendship and partnership between the people of Illinois and the people of Japan is very strong. It is built on mutual benefit, mutual trust and mutual confidence. We have had strong positive relations for many, many decades,” added Rauner, who was among the state governors that attended the U.S. Midwest-Japan Conference last September.

Meanwhile, the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Chicago (JCCC) wants to change the perception of Illinois among more Japanese.

“Most Japanese, myself included, had a stereotyped image of Chicago before they came to visit. But when they come and see it for themselves, Chicago is not what they expect. Most of the Japanese families that come over here for an overseas assignment, end up saying ‘Oh, I want to stay here!’ when it’s time to go back to Japan,” JCCC Executive Director Tetsuro Mitani said.

INDIANA

“Hoosier Hospitality” is often mentioned by Japanese who have visited and lived in Indiana. With more Japanese investment per capita than any other U.S. state, Indiana is proud of having made that impact among thousands of Japanese investors and tourists.

“There is no other state that is as proactive and visionary as Indiana in that respect. Because of the very deep roots that we have in economic, academic and community relationships, we truly have a very strong foundation in our relationship with Japan,” Japan America Society in Indiana (JASI) Executive Director Theresa Kulczak explained.

As Japan’s advocate in the Hoosier State, JASI is also a driving force in fostering cultural ties between Indiana and Japan. And as government officials on both sides come and go, JASI provides a steady and constant presence amid those changes over the years.

Because of the clear economic benefits that come from Japanese investment across Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb once labeled Japan “a part of the fabric of our state.”

“The great thing is that, within Indiana, these Japanese corporations have become such an integral part of so many communities, by offering good jobs, sponsoring sports teams and the like. I cannot imagine an Indiana without the positive Japanese presence,” Honorary Consul General Peter Morse said.

“The Japan-Indiana partnership is distinct. There’s a level of familiarity that has built up over the years. It’s not nearly as formal. These are genuine friendships. What we were all taught about hajimemashite — a formal expression used on meeting someone accompanied by the bow and the card exchange — is often replaced with hugs, high-fives and knuckle bumps,” Morse added.

MICHIGAN

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of its twin-state relationship with Shiga Prefecture, Michigan has not wavered on its efforts to maintain its deep ties with Japan.

“The long history of the Michigan-Shiga Sister State Agreement is a living example of how two states with different histories and cultures can connect deeply and culturally with each other, even though those states are on opposite ends of the world,” Gov. Rick Snyder said during a visit to Japan last year.

Consul General of Japan in Detroit Mitsuhiro Wada echoed the sentiment: “Japanese value long term friendship. This anniversary is very meaningful and significant for further developing the relationship.”

Heavily battered by a wide sweeping financial crisis a decade ago, the Wolverine State, displayed a resiliency associated with its nickname as it engineered one of the most dramatic turnarounds in U.S. history. As of 2016, Michigan ranked seventh in CNBC’s “America’s Top States for Business” study, jumping 30 spots in only 10 years.

“Many steps have been taken since the crisis. The tax system was completely revised. Thousands of regulations were cut. Detroit has reemerged from bankruptcy. I invite folks to come and experience for themselves everything that is happening here,” said Michigan Economic Development Corporation CEO Jeff Mason.

With the state’s unemployment rate now aligned with the national average of 4 percent, Michigan can thank Japanese companies for their positive impact. To date, they employ more than 40,000 people across the state.

With the landscape of the auto industry and mobility entering a phase of deep transformation, the government of Michigan is capitalizing on its current upswing to adapt to industry demands by launching various programs designed to spur innovation and improve connectivity.

“Our state was built on its strength in manufacturing. It’s in our DNA. Mobility and autonomous vehicles is certainly an area we see tremendous opportunity for growth for Michigan, and by extension, advanced manufacturing,” Mason said.

“There are very compelling reasons that companies in mobility should be thinking about coming to Michigan,” he added.

With the highest concentration of engineers in the United States, around 75 percent of all auto related research and development in North America takes place in Michigan, which hosts more than 375 R&D centers.

“We are the world leader in the mobility and the automotive sector, and we want to continue that. Japan has always been a strong partner, so we are working to continue that relationship,” Snyder stressed.

OHIO

When Ohio Gov. James Rhodes and Soichiro Honda agreed to build a $35 million motorcycle plant in Marysville in 1977, few people realized the kind of lasting and significant impact the deal would have on the state and the Japanese giant.

Since the first U.S.-assembled Accord rolled out of the Marysville plant in 1982, Honda now employs close to 10,000 people and directly or indirectly, contributes millions of dollars to the economy of Ohio, which remains the heart of Honda’s American operations.

The Marysville plant has produced more than 11 million Accords, while its facility in Anna is Honda’s largest engine plant in the world.

“We truly value the contributions of Honda to our city and county. Twenty-five percent of our workforce works at Japanese–owned facilities, most of them tied to Honda and its supply chain. They are a highly respected and appreciated member of our community,” Marysville Mayor J.R. Rausch said.

Meanwhile, officials of the city of St. Marys, which has also hosted Japanese companies since the 1970s, are deeply grateful to Honda’s steadfast commitment to the city.

“During the recession, Honda in Ohio did not lay off any full-time employees,” Wada said.

With the recovery of the auto industry, the state has announced initiatives to adapt to the changing landscape of the sector, such as the installation of smart, connected highways between Union

County and the state capital of Columbus, construction of tech parks designed to jumpstart innovation, investments in the utilities infrastructure to lower plant operating costs, and development of educational programs to improve its workforce.

Columbus has also seen a transformation into a more vibrant city that hopes to improve quality of life and attract more talent from outside the state. 

“The foundations are here. The Japanese presence in Ohio is not going away any time soon. We will continue to serve as a bridge between Japan and central Ohio,” Japan-America Society of Central Ohio Executive Director Benjamin Pachter said.

U.S. Great Lakes 2018 was prepared for and originally printed in GMI Post Newspaper.

PDF of the printed report

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