Ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama provided keynote remarks at the SEUS-Japan conference in Savannah. Photo: Trevor Williams

An annual conference bringing leaders of Southeast U.S. states together with Japanese investors and officials in the region has been postponed till next year as COVID-19 continues to constrain international business travel.  

The SEUS-Japan Alliance conference was last hosted in Georgia in October, as more than 430 people from Japan and the seven-state area descended on Savannah for a conclave that reinforced the importance of Japanese companies to the U.S. economy at a rocky time for bilateral relations.  

Japanese officials, in particular, underscored the recent trade deal struck between the countries, while executives warned that protectionist polices in the U.S. threatened unintended consequences for local employment — particularly growing investments in the automotive sector.  

As is customary with the 43-year-old alliance, this year’s conference was set to head back to Japan and was slated to be held in Tokyo. 

While Japan has seen relative success fighting COVID-19 — its case load stands at fewer than 23,000 with just 985 deaths since the pandemic began — the country has yet to open to foreign travelers, barring a few exceptions. Foreign arrivals fell to a record low of 1,700 in May. In 2019, the country averaged more than 2.5 million foreign visitors per month.  

According to the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta, the country has seen 1,748 new COVID-19 cases crop up since July 1, with no deaths reported. Japan is moving ahead with a phased reopening plan that has been bolstered by aggressive economic stimulus. The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed by a year soon after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic.  

The Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Scott McMurray said losing the 2020 conference is “unfortunate” but that he is confident in the state’s ability to stay connected with its No. 1 investor nation.  

Georgia first put an office in Tokyo in 1974, which has played an integral role in stoking the relationships there. the deputy commissioner for global commerce said, noting that the Savannah summit should keep the state on the minds of partners in Japan.  

“We shall certainly miss the chance to renew friendships and business ties with our Japanese colleagues. However, Georgia continues to nurture our strong business and cultural ties with Japan, as we have done every year since first establishing our Tokyo office in 1974,” Mr. McMurray said. “We are also able to grow these relationships further right here at home, as Georgia is the home of both the Consul General of Japan’s office for the Southeast and the Japanese External Trade Organization.”  

Al Hodge, chair of the Japan-America Society of Georgia and a veteran economic developer, said the strong historical ties should be enough to keep momentum going. More important are strong policies at the state and federal level that encourage more trade and investment, he said. 

“While it is a disappointment, the majority of Japan-Georgia partners understand the decision,” Mr. Hodge told Global Atlanta in an email. “I am confident that the existing relationships will continue; creating new contacts will be more difficult but not impossible.”  

Normally held in Gwinnett County, the annual JapanFest event has also had to adapt to the new reality, moving online as a four-month virtual event June 1 to Sept. 30.  

Among the many online activities is a trivia challenge about Japanese companies operating in Georgia scheduled for August. (See the full lineup here)

Member states of the SEUS-Japan alliance include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The alliance has a Japanese counterpart, the Japan-U.S. Southeast Association.

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...