Almost every month, Hideo Yoshikawa gets a shipment of grits in the mail.
He learned to love the Southern dish while living in Peachtree City, but he can’t find it in Tokyo. Luckily, his Japanese colleagues in metro Atlanta are nice enough send care packages for him and his sons.
After all, they were born and raised in Georgia.
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Yoshikawa began a 14-year stint in the U.S. during which he helped kick-start and run a factory for Toppan Interamerica Inc., a unit of the massive Japanese printing firm Toppan Printing Co. Ltd.
Toppan was founded in 1900 by a group of finance-ministry engineers who decided to use their printing expertise and equipment to form a private company that would print bank notes for the Japanese government. Out of that venture sprung a company that has become one of the largest and most successful in its industry.
The journey hasn’t always been smooth. Printing is not just ink and paper anymore, and Toppan has constantly had to innovate to thrive, sometimes even finding itself in sectors that wouldn’t be commonly described as printing. For instance, the company is one of the market leaders for color filters used in LCD screens for televisions, cell phones and other devices, Mr. Yoshikawa told GlobalAtlanta during an interview in Tokyo.
In 1986, during the heyday of Japanese investment in the U.S., the company invested $6 million into a brand new facility in McDonough, about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta.
“Atlanta was a traffic hub; if you shipped to the north or shipped to the west, you could go anywhere,” Mr. Yoshikawa said of the decision. It also helped that labor was cheaper and more flexible than in unionized areas of the U.S.
The move consolidated some production from Europe and put Toppan closer to its North American customers. In 2005, the company was renamed Toppan Cosmo, reflecting its new focus on interior décor.
The company makes papers in wood, stone, abstract and geometric finishes that serve as veneers for furniture, cabinets and flooring.
The Georgia plant remains at the center of Toppan Cosmo’s global strategy. Employing about 150 people, it currently serves customers in the U.S., Central and South America and Europe. Soon, thanks to the gradual rise of the Japanese yen against the dollar over the past two years, the Georgia plant will likely add even more production, Mr. Yoshikawa said.
When the yen was weaker, Toppan Cosmo could more cheaply make products in Japan and ship them to countries in which business is conducted in dollars. That’s no longer cost effective. The Georgia plant already accounts for half of the company’s global manufacturing volume, with the rest coming from Japan.
The currency issue is affecting companies across sectors. Toppan’s story suggests that Georgia’s strong historical relationship with Japanese firms could continue to pay dividends in the future. Major Japanese companies are listing currency arbitrage as a major factor in increasing production in the U.S.
Partly for that purpose, Mitsubishi Power Systems Americas is investing $325 million to put a gas turbine assembly facility and a gas and steam turbine maintenance shop on a 119-acre plot in coastal Georgia, said Toshiaki Kasai, head of Power Systems business strategy for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.
“We thought we needed to spread out the manufacturing to minimize our exchange risk. We make gas turbines in Takasago, Japan, so most costs are in Japanese yen. If fluctuation occurs, our price level is much higher than the competitors, so that’s one reason we dispersed to Savannah,” Mr. Kasai told GlobalAtlanta during an interview at the company’s headquarters in Yokohama, Japan.
Despite negative press about the sluggish pace of their home country’s economy, the number of Japanese companies in the five southeastern states covered by the Japanese consulate in Atlanta has gone from 900 to more than 1,000 since Consul General Takuji Hanatani took up his post more than two years ago.
The yen’s rise will accelerate that trend as companies like Toppan seek a cost advantage, and it won’t just be in manufacturing, the consul general told GlobalAtlanta.
“That will continue and they will expand their presence here,” Mr. Hanatani said. He cited the Mitsubishi plant and a Toshiba nuclear subsidiary that in 2009 put an engineering base in Charlotte, N.C., creating nearly 200 jobs.
As for Toppan, the biggest challenge is fending off competition from an even lower cost country: China, which has burst onto the printing scene, sometimes with designs ripped off from the tight-knit group of industry leaders, Mr. Yoshikawa said.
GlobalAtlanta reporter Trevor Williams has been on assignment in Japan conducting interviews in Tokyo and Fukuoka. He is to return to Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 31.