A Japanese official who helps foster relationships with Midwestern states experienced his first up-close look at Columbus, which has had ties with the island nation for more than 30 years.

Naoki Ito, who serves as consul-general of Japan from his base of operations in Chicago, met Tuesday with Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop.

The consulate office Ito heads serves 10 Midwestern states: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The main purposes of the consulate office are to:

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Serve Japanese nationals

Represent the Japanese government

Provide travel services and cultural information about Japan to non-Japanese residents within the 10-state jurisdiction.

During his visit, Ito and Lienhoop discussed U.S.-Japanese relations at City Hall, and Ito also toured various aspects of Columbus, including:

A plant tour of Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing

Seeing the Our House Japan exhibit at the kids-commons children’s museum

Checking out Friendship Alley in downtown Columbus

Lunch at Rindo, a Japanese restaurant on the city’s west side

Also on Ito’s agenda Tuesday was attending an evening reception by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb for the governor of Japan’s Aichi Prefecture.

Ito said he was impressed during the tour of Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing in Columbus.

“The busiest factory floor I’ve ever seen and very well run,” Ito said.

Toyota’s impressive factory facilities are possible in Columbus because of the support and hospitality extended by local government officials, Ito said.

“The purpose of my visit is to see how the Japanese companies are received by the local community, local political leaders,” Ito said.

The consul-general added that his delegation was struck by something a 27-year company employee told them. “Making things is about making people,” Ito said the employee told them.

Ito said it was good to hear from the American employee that investing in people — the workers — was important in Columbus, the same as it is in Japan.

Lienhoop said he hopes the main takeaway for Ito is that Columbus is fertile ground for Japanese companies because efforts to create a diverse and welcoming community have paid off.

“It may not be the city of Columbus’ responsibility to make a statement for international relations, but this is a grassroots effort, and the Japanese government needs to understand that regular, everyday, ordinary American citizens here in Columbus appreciate the relationship that the United States has with Japan,” Lienhoop said.

Ito said Columbus was the first city in Indiana his office visited this year as part of a tour program.

“Columbus was a natural choice for us because it is such a beautiful city, has beautiful architecture and history, and Columbus is home to 27 Japanese companies the generate 6,000 jobs,” Ito said.

Statewide, Indiana is home to more than 280 Japanese companies that employ about 58,000 workers. That means Columbus is home to about 10 percent of the Japanese companies in Indiana and the workers they employ.

“Columbus has a really good workforce, good infrastructure, good transportation as well as a good quality of life. So it’s no wonder Japanese companies are really attracted to here,” Ito said.

The city’s pursuit of Japanese investment dates to the early 1980s, and paid off when Enkei America, which makes aluminum wheels, opened in 1985.

“I really want to see further opportunities for business exchange between Japan and Columbus,” Ito said. “I’m really pleased to see the way things are happening here in Columbus, and I can report back to Tokyo, my home government, that Columbus is the place that Japanese companies should be in the future as well.”

Pull Quote

“It may not be the city of Columbus’ responsibility to make a statement for international relations, but this is a grassroots effort, and the Japanese government needs to understand that regular, everyday, ordinary American citizens here in Columbus appreciate the relationship that the United States has with Japan.”

— Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Pull Quote

“I really want to see further opportunities for business exchange between Japan and Columbus. I’m really pleased to see the way things are happening here in Columbus, and I can report back to Tokyo, my home government, that Columbus is the place that Japanese companies should be in the future as well.”

— Naoki Ito, consul-general of Japan in Chicago

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.