Monday, September 10, 2007

Day 1: U.S. Midwest Japan Association Conference

Unlike some of the other trade missions, this one included attending the annual conference of the U.S. Midwest Japan Association. The Association first met in 1967 in Chicago, IL. The membership is comprised of 10 member U.S. states. Those states include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin. The meeting in 2006 was held in Indianapolis and was attended by the governors of five Midwestern states and the Chairmen/CEOs from such companies as Eli Lilly, FedEx, Duke Nuclear, Lear Corporation, Northwest Airlines, Tokyo Stock Exchange and Toyota Motor North America.

Over 500 people attended the conference in Tokyo this year. All the states in the Association have a delegation such as ours from Indiana. We are in attendance to hear a variety of speakers from both the U.S. and Japan and to meet other business people who trade with Japan.

While attending the conference I became more convinced that Japan is truly a partner of ours and that partnership is integral to our future success. The U.S. and Japan are the two largest economies in the world. Indiana has the 4th highest investment in Japan of all U.S. states. Ahead of us on the list are Kentucky, Ohio, and California. Eighty-eight percent of our investment is in motor vehicle parts. Additionally, 50% of all patents in the world are registered by either Japan or the U.S.

One of the concerns currently in Japan is their farming community and its workforce. The average age of a farmer in Japan is 70 years old. This means that they are more and more reliant upon countries like the U.S. to provide imported agricultural products. However, they are somewhat leery about the food safety standards of the U.S. Because of the size of the U.S. market they feel that the standards may not be enforced as rigidly as the standards are in Japan. They are also very skeptical of genetically altered products and do not believe they are the same from a nutritional standpoint.

The Japanese culture is one of tradition and ritual. We went to a Sumo match and I was fascinated to learn about the meaning of the rituals that occur before the match begins. Sumo is believed to be as much a mental sport as one of balance and strength. To begin the match, each wrestler claps his hands to get the attention of the audience. Then the hands are lifted up to show they have no weapons. The legs are lifted and the feet stomped to rid the arena of bad spirits. Each wrestler rinses his mouth with water and wipes the inside of his mouth with a towel. This is done to symbolically represent the clearing of the mind and the body. And lastly before the match begins, salt is spread in the area to purify the ring.

As with my previous visit to Japan I continue to be struck by the similarities we share and also the marked differences. We share interests and values in supporting democracy, research for disease cures and technological advances, and protecting and conserving natural resources. Our differences seem to be driven by our heritage and culture. Our manners and customs are different, but as we continue to embrace diversity across our own country and the world such differences become less significant and more of who and what we are as a global economy.