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NKITA members hear about Japan’s influence on state’s auto industry, take a few laps, at KY Speedway

By Kevin Eigelbach
Northern Kentucky Tribune

At the May meeting of the Northern Kentucky International Trade Association (NKITA), Toshio Nakao told a story that illustrated the difference between American and Japanese ideas of justice.

Mark Simendinger, general manager of the Kentucky Speedway, talks with attendees at the Northern Kentucky International Trade Association meeting at the Speedway on Wednesday (photos by Kevin Eigelbach)

It involved both aggrieved parties in a dispute getting less than they wanted, with the trial official dipping into his own pocket to help make an equitable settlement.

Unlike in America, where justice usually means black-and-white, winner-take-all decisions, he said, justice in Japan is more ambiguous. Japanese don’t like litigation, he said, and don’t have as many attorneys. There are only three lawyers per 10,000 people in Japan, compared to 40 lawyers per 10,000 in the United States.

It’s also one reason why he was “exported from Japan” decades ago, he joked. He’s been a partner with Taft, Stettinius and Hollister LLP in Cincinnati for the past 27 years.

Meeting at the Kentucky Speedway in Carrollton, the association, which is a division of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, heard from Nakao and other business people about Japan’s influence on the automotive industry in Kentucky.

Kentucky has more than 500 auto-related manufacturing facilities that together employ more than 95,000 people, said Janet Harrah, senior director for the Center for Economic Analysis and Development at Northern Kentucky University.

“When most people worldwide think of Kentucky, they think of the bourbon industry and the Kentucky Derby, she said. “We may be famous for that,” she said, “but we make the vast majority of our money selling automobiles and aircraft (parts).”

Altogether, about 1.5 million Kentuckians can trace their employment to Japanese-branded automobile facilities, Nakao said. That includes about 65,000 manufacturing employees, plus others whose jobs have arisen indirectly because of those manufacturing jobs or who work at Japanese auto dealerships.

Those workers are paid a total of about $106.8 billion annually, he said.

The granddaddy of Japanese auto investment in Kentucky was the Toyota plant in Georgetown, which opened in 1986 and makes the company’s Camry. Toyota has invested $5.3 billion in that plant, he said, and recently announced plans to invest another $1.2 billion.

After the meeting of the Northern Kentucky International Trade Association on Wednesday at the Kentucky Speedway, attendees took a couple of laps around the track in their personal vehicles.

Along the way, Toyota has changed the landscape of Georgetown, he said, doubling the population and turning tobacco fields into apartment complexes.

Japanese-branded auto plants have also changed the look of American manufacturing, said Andrew Rothwell, general manager of production control at Toyoda Gosei North American Corp. in Detroit.

They have imported their philosophy of selflessness, he said, which is most evident in the fact that in the manufacturing plants, everyone from the CEO to the lowliest worker wears the same uniform.

Rothwell talked about adjusting to the differences between Japanese and American cultures. In the United States, we spent about 30 percent of our time planning a project and about 70 percent actually doing it, he said. But the Japanese will spend 70 percent of their time planning and 30 percent doing.

The American way might get the project done faster, he said, but the Japanese way will get it done with less waste.

The Japanese believe in consensus-building. They like to review facts as a group and come up with solutions collectively, he said, whereas Americans tend to come up with ideas individually and then justify them to the group.

Another difference is that the Japanese are very good at networking, he said.

“It’s almost like a sewing circle,” he said. “if you tell one, they all know.”

Asked if the Japanese would continue to invest in the United States, Nakao said he didn’t know the answer. He did bring up one opportunity for investment that he said Kentucky could capitalize on.

In 2017, the United States imported more than 6 million cars more than it exported. Japanese car makers can help satisfy that demand by making and selling more cars here, he said.

Contact the Northern Kentucky Tribune at news@nkytrib.com

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