TN's hospitality lures investors, Japanese consul-general says

3:24 PM, Mar 18, 2013   |    comments
Motohiko Kato, Japan's consul-general in Nashville, says Tennesseans' hospitality is helping attract Japanese investors. / Larry McCormack / The Tennessean
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By G. Chambers Williams III / The Tennessean

Tennessee might just be the perfect post for the new Japanese consul-general, Motohiko Kato, who took the top position at Japan's Nashville consulate in October: He's an Elvis fan and a Civil War history buff.

Kato, who represents Japanese citizens and business interests in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana, has already made several trips to Memphis, where he visited Graceland and viewed the rock 'n' roll king's grave site.

"Elvis Presley was a wonderful musician," Kato said during an interview at the consulate, on the ninth floor of the Palmer Plaza on West End Avenue. "I was surprised to see so many birthday cards on the tomb, and people singing 'Happy Birthday' to him."

For his study of the Civil War, Kato has already been to some of the battlefields in Tennessee, he said.

"I recently visited Chattanooga, a beautiful city," said Kato, who speaks English fluently. "I'm very much interested in the Civil War, so I try to visit the places where battles occurred."

Back at work, Kato's primary function as consul-general is to protect the interests of the Japanese people and businesses here and to promote more trade between Tennessee and his native country.

"A major responsibility is to promote business opportunities in the state, so we are ready at any time to try to help Japanese companies invest here," said Kato, a career diplomat who began his service in 1982. "We also have to take care of the interests of the Japanese companies.

"We also want to establish a good friendship with the people here and promote cultural opportunities so local people can obtain a deeper understanding of our country."

Kato came to Nashville from his most recent post in Manila, where he was deputy chief of mission for the Japanese embassy in the Philippines.

Pleasant memories of Tennessee

His career has taken him from Japan to Washington, D.C., Afghanistan, Singapore, Iran and Paris, as well.

He worked at the Japanese embassy in Washington in 2007, but that wasn't his first trip to the United States. Early in his career, he studied English at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, which led to his first Tennessee visit.

"About 25 years ago, when I was a student at Swarthmore, I decided to take a long driving trip with some American friends, and I visited Nashville," Kato said.

His recollections of the area then were reinforced when he returned last fall to take his new post, he said.

"It is a beautiful state," he said. "But what has always impressed me most is the wonderful hospitality of the people. That's why Tennessee is attracting so many Japanese investors and Japanese people. They feel very welcome here."

180 Japanese firms do business in state

There is so much Japanese investment in Tennessee that the Japanese government felt compelled to move the consulate here from New Orleans, Kato said.

"Tennessee is a wonderful place for these investors," he said. "Currently, more than 63 percent of the foreign direct investment in Tennessee has come from Japan. There are 180 Japanese companies successfully doing business here, and there are 3,700 Japanese residents in the state."

Bridgestone, the world's largest tire manufacturer, has its Americas headquarters in Nashville, as well as manufacturing facilities in La Vergne and McMinnville. Nissan, Japan's No. 2 automaker, opened its first U.S. plant in Smyrna in 1982 and moved its North American headquarters here from Southern California in 2006. Both companies have brought some of their top Japanese executives here, as well.

Among them is Chikahiko Nobori, a senior human relations manager at the Nissan headquarters in Franklin, who has already met Kato and attended functions at his home.

"He is friendly and has been very open to us and has been very supportive of the Japanese community here," Nobori said. "I believe the function of the consul-general is to help the Japanese companies and people here, and it is very important for us to have him here."

And, he added, Kato "serves excellent food at his house."

That's no accident. Kato brought his own chef from Japan and uses him to prepare meals for the many groups he brings to his home as part of his outreach to the community.

"At my residence, we are ready to invite many American people," Kato said. "My chef from Tokyo is eager to serve authentic Japanese cuisine to the people here as we establish more wonderful friendships."

Forging friendships

Among the many invited guests so far has been Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, who said he has been to various functions at Kato's home.

Schulz said Kato's warmth and friendliness are helping him quickly forge friendships throughout the community.

"He has been very aggressive about getting out and meeting people," Schulz said. "He entertains frequently at the consulate residence. I have spent a lot of time with him already, even more than with his predecessor, Hiroshi Sato, who left here to become the ambassador to Cuba."

"What strikes me most is that he is friendly, engaging and knowledgeable," Schulz said. "If you meet with him, he will fill his ambassadorial role of letting you know what is happening with the economy in Japan, the recovery from the earthquake and tsunami two years ago. But he moves quickly into their desire to be deeply connected to our community. He is an economic developer, and he's looking to enhance exports from Tennessee to Japan and to bring in more foreign direct investment."

Besides promoting more Japanese business opportunities in the state, Kato says he also wants to help Tennesseans learn about Japanese culture.

"To my surprise, there are universities here providing courses in the Japanese language and Asian studies, including Japanese history and culture," Kato said. "Many local students are learning our language and our cultural history."

He reaches out to those classes and makes himself available to give talks to them, he said.

Kato also had praise for the American people for the U.S. response to the double tragedies on March 11, 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami wrecked a significant portion of eastern Japan.

"It claimed the lives of 20,000 people in Japan," Kato said. "But the United States immediately decided to extend a big helping hand to the people in shelters and in difficult situations, and the Japanese people will never forget that. It was an awful disaster, but we are recovering, and the new (government) is working hard to restore the Japanese economy.

"In the affected area, there is still room for the (government) to do more," he said. "Many people still are in temporary housing. But the Japanese people are united, and we are working hard to get through this."

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