Yumiko Nakazono reflects on her nearly 30 years promoting Georgia in Japan.

Editor’s note: Representing Georgia for nearly 30 years, Yumiko Nakazono has been compiling insights for decades now on what makes the state attractive for Japanese investors.

Her short answer? Southern Hospitality is real, as are the region’s competitive advantages in labor and land prices, as well as governments that are genuinely eager to help companies achieve success.

But other intangibles underpin Georgia-Japan investment ties now responsible for more than 30,000 jobs, with that number expanding even amid trade tensions that have ebbed and flowed in the past two years.

The role of Georgia corporations in supporting the relationship has been invaluable, with Coca-Cola Co. and Aflac Inc. underwriting a Georgia Society of Japan that has been a conduit for information and a catalyst for personal relationships, especially among Japanese investment prospects and expatriates who have returned home after stints in the state.

Culture matters too, according to Ms. Nakazono, who sees commonalities in the way Southerners approach life with those that define Japanese culture — humility, mutual respect and the value of family, to name a few.

But the region has more to do to itself to Japanese innovators, Ms. Nakazono says in the below interview, which also provides insight on Japanese corporate decision-making processes, company-sponsored innovation centers in Georgia and a glimpse of what Ms. Nakazono hopes to accomplish in her next phase of life.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Global Atlanta: Is Georgia-kai still running? When we spoke a decade ago, you had an “On My Mind” newsletter you were sending out to a substantial number of readers. Is that still being published?

Yes, it is still running, and my office has been assisting the association for almost 30 years. Georgia-kai (the Georgia Society of Japan) started around in 1986 as a kind of alumni association of Georgia in Japan, most of whose members are Japanese business executives who stayed and worked in Georgia. And yes, we have been issuing a bi-monthly four-page newsletter on Georgia — On My Mind — for 30 years now without a break.

The number of individual members is about 150, and we have two very supportive corporate members: Aflac Japan and Coca-Cola Japan. We distribute the newsletter not only to the Georgia-kai members, but also to some 70 Japanese companies and organizations (especially the companies which have plants in Georgia). I believe it is one of the most valuable activities of my office.

Global Atlanta: What is the consensus among Japanese expats about their time in Georgia? Are there ways we can become a more welcoming state for those who are here temporarily (or permanently)? Where do you think Japanese culture and Southern U.S. culture intersect?

Ms. Nakazono: I hear from so many Japanese expats saying that it was so nice to live and work in Georgia, so they want to go back to Georgia again. And, as those expats say, Japanese and Southern U.S. cultures are common in many ways such as climate, social and mutual respect, harmony and humble hospitality.

Yumiko Nakazono meets with Gov. Brian Kemp during a January 2019 breakfast with the state’s representatives from abroad. Photo: Office of Gov. Brian P. Kemp

Global Atlanta: How has the reputation of Georgia changed during your nearly 30 years? The state has a long history in Japan, but I’m curious as to whether the questions companies are asking you about the business environment/investment climate are different than when you first started. What do you think sets Georgia apart from other states in the Southeast that have also been successful in winning Japanese investment?

Ms. Nakazono: When I first started working for the state of Georgia Japan office, we started explaining from very basic points in our state such as where Georgia is located in the U.S., what the capital city is, etc. And there are still companies which ask about those basic questions even now.

But other companies with more experience in the U.S. ask for more detailed info/data such as average costs in various sectors such as labor wages, land/building costs, utilities costs, even transportation costs (how much it would cost by truck from Georgia to another state…etc). They also wonder about corporate and/or tax related items such as :

-Does your state have accelerated depreciated system?

-Which would be better to form a company in your state; corporation or LLC?”, “how FTZ works in your state?”, or

-Could you provide us with data on the market size of our product in the US. or in your state?

The things which set Georgia apart from other states in the Southeast are the transportation/logistics infrastructure centering Atlanta, as well as Atlanta being the hub in the southeast with direct flight between Atlanta and Tokyo’s Haneda airport, plus so many Japanese amenities such as Japanese international charter academy, Japanese Saturday school, so many Japanese restaurants and supermarkets, Japanese doctors and dentists and more. All of these are great resources our state can offer exclusively to Japanese companies/businesspeople living and working in Georgia.

Global Atlanta: What would you say are the factors driving Japanese investment expansion in Georgia and the Southeast these days, even amid a pandemic and political uncertainty?

Ms. Nakazono: Regarding investment expansions by Japanese companies which are already located in Georgia, it should not be difficult to think of its driving factors: They’re conducting solid and stable operations with skilled labor and reasonable costs on wages, land, buildings and utilities. Georgia also has as low union rate, mild climate and all the aforementioned amenities. They will surely want to keep their operations in a place with such nice conditions.

Global Atlanta: Japanese companies are known for having long-term time horizons. What are some keys, then, to helping guide them through immediate decisions about where to invest?

Ms. Nakazono: For Japanese companies, the corporate system is bottom-up (not top-down). There are so many company people involved in one business or project, and internal consensus or agreement among all those people is very important for corporate Japan. They have collective, holistic, harmonious decision-making process, which all the people involved have a chance to give input and are in agreement on the decision; the end result is that responsibility is spread out among many individuals and is not left with one or only a few. This provides the advantage of more people feeling responsibility and owning the decision (that’s why it is said “bottom-up”!). This is the approach they take with not only “where to invest”, but they also take time to decide “if, when, or how they should invest” in the same way.

Global Atlanta: Japan is a land of innovation, and not just in the manufacturing world. Yet most of our investment has come in the form of factories. What can be done to drive more exchanges in technology, health care, entertainment and other segments of our respective industry bases?

Ms. Nakazono: Actually, there have been projects/exchanges of technologies/innovations undertaken by Japanese companies in Georgia, with some examples as follows:

Panasonic Automotive Systems of America: They set up innovation center for R&D of car electronics at ATDC in Atlanta in 2013.

Yamaha Motor in Newnan: They utilized our state’s Center of Innovation for Manufacturing to create a lighter-weight composite for their WaveRunner product, and the center connected Yamaha to GTMI who provided the research capabilities to test a new nano material.

Kubota in Gainesville: They set up a new engineering and design center there in 2019, in addition to the one they had set up inside KMA.

Yanmar in Canton: They have EVO center at their U.S .headquarters building in Canton with R&D capacity.

Kimoto Tech in Cedartown: They have R&D facility onside there and often collaborate with Georgia Tech in their internal research.

If we’re talking about more venture-type innovation including companies/startups from Japan, recently I visited Japan IT Week exhibition including 5G/IoT/Optical communications, AI, blockchain, computing fields, and visited many company booths.

Most of them said that they focus only Japan (or Asian market), or if going to the U.S., they think of the West Coast (especially Silicon Valley area in San Francisco) most. On the East Coast, it should be in the Northeast such as New York, Boston (this can be said for health care and/or entertainment sectors as well). They didn’t mention even the name of Texas, which is considered to be the second Silicon Valley in the U.S.

So, I believe it is not only our state but also as a region, we may want to promote the innovation industry (this can also be said in some other regions of the U.S. such as the Midwest, which has still strong manufacturing base/infrastructure).

At the same time, we should realize that IT innovators won’t be setting up large scale facilities with a large of number of jobs.

They will start with a small, efficient operation with manufacturing base/partner, or they will be looking for local partner, venture capital, etc. For these types of industries, we may want to point them to incubators like the ATDC at Georgia Tech or set up match-making appointments to introduce them to resources like the centers of innovation.

Global Atlanta: Beyond the official visits by governors, etc, and the day-to-day work, what were the most memorable experiences you had while representing the state?

Ms. Nakazono: There are so many memorable experiences, but if I have to pick:

  1. Every time I made a business trip to Georgia, I was able to visit different kinds of places all over the state, including local communities, companies, schools, institutions/facilities, beautiful local restaurants/clubs and wonderful nature. I still remember the smell of green grass in a small town and the red clay ground with a beautiful sun-set in south Georgia — I felt like I went back to my hometown!

  2. Every time I had chances to mingle with my department’s colleagues, our partners/stakeholders including Georgia Allies’ members, chambers of commerce, economic development people I know, I had such nice and enjoyable times.

  3. When I received grateful words from Japanese companies when or after they decided to locate their operations in Georgia such as, “Everything started from you Nakazono-san, when we began our U.S. project”, “Your explanation about your state was very clear and trustworthy”, “Thanks to your help and support, our company was able to set up and start operation in Georgia”…etc, I almost cried every time. These are priceless, irreplaceable words/experiences for me.

Global Atlanta: What will you be doing next? How can people stay in touch with you, and what do you think your relationship with Georgia will look like in the future?

Ms. Nakazono: Actually, I have not decided yet clearly, but there are so many things I want to do and learn, such as studying other foreign languages, economics, sports including more yoga/swimming/gym, probably even golf and some musical instrument!

I’d like to keep in touch with Georgia and with many of my good friends in Georgia, so I’d like to keep going back to Georgia, and I’d like to welcome my friends in Georgia in Japan when they will have a chance to come here!

To stay in touch with me, the best way will be via LinkedIn. I’m there under Yumiko Nakazono/Georgia Dept. of Economic Development — the name of the department will be there until February, 2021, but I may keep it for awhile!

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...

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