Representing Japanese business interests in the US should have become a lot harder when the country’s flagship manufacturer Toyota announced in January that it had been selling cars with bad brakes and had to recall around 8 million cars worldwide.
But the Deep South may be the part of the country that can still say yes to Japan Inc. “In this area, there is a pretty strong confidence in the quality of Toyota and other Japanese companies’ cars, so there is not a strong feeling about the recall by Toyota,” says Hiroshi Sato, Japan’s first consul-general in Nashville.
Less than two years ago, Sato became the only foreign diplomat posted in Tennessee. For 82 years, Japan had a consulate in New Orleans that looked after commercial interests moving through the busy port on the Gulf of Mexico. But for the last decade of that period, the consulate had been less and less busy and after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Japanese diplomatic outpost was moved several hours to the north and east. Today, Louisiana is home to two Japanese companies, while Tennessee has 160.
This region is the heart of Japan’s industrial interests in the US. Toyota has factories in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama. Nissan has two research-and-development centres here. Honda makes automatic transmissions in Georgia, while truckmaker Hino churns out axles and suspension parts in Arkansas. Thousands of Japanese families now live in metropolises such as Georgetown, Kentucky, and Smyrna, Tennessee.
Sato was previously posted to Washington and New York. But he says he feels more comfortable living in Nashville. “There is a cultural chemistry going very well between the Japanese people and the people in the South,” he says. In most cases, southern governors have lured Japanese industrialists to such unlikely business centres with a sunny climate, generous financial incentives and so-called “right-to-work” laws that make it difficult for labour unions to organize. “Japanese businesses are not very accustomed to dealing with labour-unions people, so it is much easier for them to have factories here in the southern part of the United States,” says Sato.
As a result, an unlikely political marriage looms over Washington’s automotive policy debates. Southern conservatives have often become so defensive of Japanese business interests and critical of the perennial haplessness of American autoworkers that – if not for their accents – they could be mistaken for LDP backbenchers in the Diet. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker was the Senate’s loudest critic of last year’s federal bailout for American carmarkers.
Sato spends about two thirds of his time in Tennessee and the remainder traveling around the region. Good will towards Japan comes naturally to many of the Americans he meets along the way, who often not only own Japanese vehicles or appliances but work for the companies that make them. Even so, he warns, Toyota should not take that loyalty for granted. “They have to be very quick so consumers’ confidence in Toyota cars will be reassured,” says Sato. “I don’t know how quickly Toyota is now doing those activities.”
The Tokyo-Dixie axis is sustained by common interests along with mutual respect. Along the way, it is transforming the US’s most traditionally insular region into one of its most globally-minded.