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Florida hosts Japanese trade mission

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By Tom Flanigan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-994897.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Florida and Japan may be half a world apart in actual distance. But the Sunshine State and the Land of the Rising Sun have more in common than you might expect. Tom Flanigan reports there's an ongoing effort to reinforce and expand that connection.

Florida's new Commerce Secretary Gray Swoope says worldwide trade is a lynchpin of the state's economy.

"About one-point-three million jobs come from the export sector of Florida, so we depend on international business for our economy. It's critical! It's the fabric and the backbone of this economy that we have a linkage to different countries."

Not all of these links are immediately apparent, though. There are certainly obvious connections between South Florida and Latin America, as well as the Caribbean. It's also easy to see how Canadian, British and German tourists favor certain parts of the state. But other international links are more subtle. For instance, there wouldn't seem to be much in the way of connection between Florida and Japan. But that's not really the case. In fact, Florida actually has a formal sister-state in Japan. That sister-state is the Prefecture of Wakayama, just southwest of Osaka and, says Swoope, surprisingly close to the Sunshine State.

"It's a great region of Japan, it's a great place to visit, a lot of similarities to the state of Florida."

Florida has great beaches; Wakayama has great beaches. Florida is a hot tourist destination; Wakayama is, too. Both places are even renowned for their significant citrus fruit production, although Wakayama's oranges are of the Mandarin variety. The prefecture's Governor, Yoshinobu Nisaka, says those are just a few reasons the two regions have had a special connection for the past sixteen years.

"The State of Florida and Wakayama Prefecture concluded the sister-state relationship in 1995 and have deepened mutual understanding and a friendly relationship through various interactions."

The most recent of those interactions taking place earlier this month. A large delegation of Japanese visitors representing government, business and academia came to Tallahassee for the Eighth Annual Florida-Japan Summit. Among the speakers was Yoshifumee Matsidura. He's the chief executive director at the Atlanta office of JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization. He sees Florida in general - and South Florida in particular - as the place to launch trade missions to other places.

"Miami is connected with over eighty Latin American cities; well connected and it could be a gateway to the Latin Americas, which are now emerging as new economies."

There is also growth in direct Japanese investment in Florida. Tracy Vaughn with Visit Florida says the biggest growth is in the number of Japanese visitors coming to Florida.

"Japan, year-to-date is up eleven percent and nineteen percent for the third quarter."

That third quarter jump, Vaughn says, is more than three times the overall increase in Florida tourism for the period. The ties between the two lands and cultures goes beyond simple commerce. Dr. Judy Bense is president of the University of West Florida.

"We have exchanged over a thousand students with Japan and the University of West Florida and also faculty in the summer and they have been forever enriched by that experience of being in a very different culture - both theirs and ours - and learning about it."

Bense's school has a Japanese-style house - complete with ritual tea room - right by the front gate and is planting more Japanese cherry trees along the driveway. Gaylen Phillips with the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs has also been pushing cross cultural understanding.

"In the year 2000, we helped bring over one of the first times out of Japan and exhibit of Noh masks. We were able to bring that over and tour that around Florida."

Besides the commercial and cultural links between the two lands are the personal and humanitarian connections. The Consul General of Japan with an office in Miami is Ayichi Kawahara. He recalls how the people of Florida responded when so much of his country was devastated by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster last March.

"Governor Scott was the first person to call me at my office to express his solidarity to the victims hit by the unprecedented calamity. Lots of Floridians statewide initiated fundraisers for Japan."

And, in the end, those ties of caring, compassion and friendship are the ones that really count.