COLUMBUS — Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst was one of 150 invited guests who attended a conference in Columbus Thursday regarding the impact of tariffs on trade. The conference, titled “Strengthening the Japan-US Economic Relationship by Growing Investment,” was sponsored by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).
The keynote speaker was Hiroshige Seko, the Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. Seko’s visit marked the first time in history that a member of the Japanese Prime Minister’s Cabinet had come to Ohio.
Seko’s portfolio includes a number of other important duties, including theminister in charge of industrial competitiveness, minister for economic cooperation with Russia, minister in charge of the response to the economic impact caused by the nuclear accident, and minister of state for the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corporation. Prior to his current responsibilities, Seko served a number of other senior government posts, most notably as the longest-serving deputy chief cabinet secretary.
In addition to Seko, Counsul-General of Japan Mitsuhiro Wada, JETRO Executive Vice President Shigeki Maeda and Honda of America Manufacturing Executive Vice President Thomas Shoupe also addressed the conference. Following their addresses, Seko, Maeda and Shoupe also participated in a panel discussion answering questions from the audience. The panel was moderated by Ralph Inforzato, chief executive director of JETRO Chicago.
One of the key topics addressed during the conference was the economic role that tariffs will play in the coming months.
“Our founder, Soichiro Honda, believed that the purpose of technology is to help people,” Shoupe told his audience. “Historically, we have embraced free trade. We are a global company. Our product should not be impacted by borders – but it has already been by the tariff war.
“After Ford, we manufacture more vehicles in the United States than any other company.” Shoupe continued. “Japanese manufacturers exported 423,415 vehicles manufactured in the United States to other countries in 2017 – including to Canada and Mexico. As the cost of aluminum and steel increases as a result of the trade war, we expect that number to decrease, as the same vehicle can be produced less expensively elsewhere.”
“Japan has made a greater investment in Ohio than the next two countries combined,” Wada stated in his remarks. “Honda has been a key player and is certainly one of the companies that has invested heavily in Ohio.”
Wada also mentioned the importance of understanding the cultural differences between Japan and the United States, and the crucial role that programs like Sister Cities can play in increased cultural understanding. “I should mention that Sister Cities has played a key role in increasing the friendship and understanding between our two countries,” Wada stated.
One of the questions asked during the question and answer part of the program was the things that Japanese companies look for when deciding to locate in a community. “The most important factor is the proximity of the community to the customer being served,” Maeda responded.
“The second most important factor is infrastructure – the streets, bridges, utilities – all are important,” Maeda continued. “Third on the list would be the availability of a highly-skilled labor force. Finally, companies are looking at the incentives that are offered. While it may seem difficult to understand, even capital-rich companies look at incentives as an illustration of the desire of the local government’s willingness to work as a partner with the company in the future.”
Immediately following the program, Seko met privately with city officials in attendance so that he might express his appreciation for welcoming Japanese investment into their communities. In addition to Barhorst, those attending included Findlay Mayor Lydia Mahilik, Marysville City Manager Terry Emery and Dublin City Manager Dana McDaniel.
“It was Minister Seko’s desire to express his desire to strengthen the Japanese-United States economic relationship at a grass roots level,” Barhorst said following the private session. “He also wanted to hear from each of us how our communities have continued to grow alongside the Japanese companies that have located in our respective communities.”
“The day’s program provided additional insight into the important economic relationship between Japan and the United States,” Barhorst said. “It not only reaffirmed the tremendous relationship our two countries currently enjoy, but the opportunity for additional investment in the future.
“Perhaps most importantly, the program emphasized the sword of Damocles is the ever-present danger of the doubt created in the minds of investors in times of political uncertainty,” Barhorst said. “It was made clear that tariffs will lead to higher prices, lost jobs and uncertainty. It was emphasized that there will be a contraction of the domestic automobile market, that there will be retaliatory tariffs by other countries, and that studies have shown that there could be job losses far exceeding the 323,000 lost following the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
“The message was clear,” Barhorst concluded. “Minister Seko traveled a long way to deliver that message – it was not delivered in Washington, D.C. our political capital and not in New York our financial capital, but it was delivered in the Heartland of the country. In fact, it is my understanding that he did not even travel there this trip.”
In addition to JETRO, the conference was cosponsored by JobsOhio, the Japan-America Society of Central Ohio, the Consulate-General of Japan, and Columbus 2020.