Seated between Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson says the state has seen recent investments that will benefit the broader Southeast region. Credit: Trevor Williams / Global Atlanta

TOKYO — When Mio Maeda arrived in Atlanta a year ago, one of his first acts as consul general was to attend the 44th annual SEUS-Japan conference in Orlando

It was the first in-person summit since Savannah hosted the 2019 annual meeting of an alliance that for nearly five decades has institutionalized collaboration with Japan on trade, investment and the sharing of best practices. 

The consul general was surprised at what he heard, and not just because he was new to a diplomatic role covering four states in the region. 

“What impressed me at the time was that all the participants showed their strong interest, aspiration and eagerness to healthily compete, but also to healthily collaborate with each other to enhance promote relations between Japan and Southeastern states,” Mr. Maeda said during closing remarks at this year’s event in Tokyo Friday.  

As many of the heads of delegation noted in remarks outlining their states’ charms and thanking existing investors, Southern states battle as intensely for economic-development projects as they do for college-football supremacy. 

But unlike the winner-take-all gridiron fights of the SEC, the relationship with Japan is no zero-sum game. Auto plants in one state can lead to supplier jobs in another, and the more the region grows as a manufacturing hub, the bigger its proverbial pie gets. 

Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson, who led the state’s nearly 40-member delegation, said 20,000-plus jobs pledged in Georgia’s current battery and electric vehicle boom will reverberate throughout the South. 

“Many of those investments will support manufacturers in our neighboring states. As we all know, jobs and prosperity don’t stop at state borders,” Mr. Wilson said, praising international partnerships as a key driver of growth.  “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come as a region.”

As we all know, jobs and prosperity don’t stop at state borders.

Commissioner Pat Wilson, Gdecd

Georgia has firsthand knowledge of the spillover effects of Japan’s largesse in the region.

While ringed with Japanese-owned assembly plants  — Nissan has been in Tennessee for nearly 40 years, while Honda makes Odyssey minivans in Alabama and Toyota produces Corolla sedans in Mississippi — Georgia lacks a Japanese OEM of its own, yet has still landed many related suppliers. 

These firms make up a sizable proportion of the nearly 400 Japanese companies that employ some 40,000 people in a state that next week will celebrate officially the 50th anniversary of its Tokyo office, Mr. Wilson said. 

“We in Georgia are proud to be a gateway that makes stronger connections, growing opportunities throughout the South,” Mr. Wilson said. 

Masami Tyson, a former economic development official for Tennessee now leading the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson’s Japan practice, said the collegial competition from Southern states has helped set the region apart from other regions in the U.S. in the eyes of Japanese firms. 

“We’re friends, and we like to work together. I hear this time and time again, that it is actually the ‘it factor.’ That is why the alliance and this meeting is ultimately a celebration and a pause in the competition among states, a time to reflect and look ahead,” Ms. Tyson said. 

With the Tennessee flag behind her, Masami Tyson says that competition between states has helped the Southeast become a strong automotive corridor for foreign firms. Credit: Trevor Williams / Global Atlanta

While all differ slightly in their offerings, Southern states broadly offer low taxes, flexible labor regulations and aggressive incentives, both fiscal and otherwise, to win projects. 

A foreign automotive corridor has developed across the South in part because of the states’ moves to differentiate themselves, Ms. Tyson said while showing a map of plants in the region run by foreign brands.

“It is no surprise that a seemingly contentious factor such as competition has ended up bringing a positive result,” she said. 

Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd summed up the situation in his opening comments, noting that the South has become a “strategically dominant and economically powerful region” where states outdo each other to create a pro-business environment.  

“Make no mistake: The seven states represented in this room are competitors. We compete in business, we compete for workers, and we compete for market share in many areas — we also compete in college football,” he said. “But we also recognize the power of partnership. We understand that by uniting for opportunities through programs like Southeast U.S.-Japan, we are ultimately stronger and better positioned in the global marketplace.” 

The event included a video message from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who visited Japan in April. Florida hosted the last in-person SEUS conference in 2022, and Eric Silagy, the former CEO of Florida Power & Light, served as conference chair on the Southeast U.S. side. 

Want daily updates from the conference and the Georgia mission to Japan for the 50th anniverary of the state’s office in the country? Subscribe to our Japan updates here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...