Local officials reflect on first trip to Japan since 2019

Aisin USA Mfg. Inc., Aisin Drivetrain Inc., O&k American Corp. and Nippon Steel Pipe America Inc.

These Japanese industries are in Jackson County because of local government and economic development officials building relationships with representatives of the companies.

Starting with Bill Bailey in 1986, five consecutive Seymour mayors have traveled to Japan with Jackson County Industrial Development Corp. Executive Director Jim Plump.

After the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic made international travel difficult, Plump and Seymour Mayor Matt Nicholson went to Japan from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3. It was the first economic development visit to Japan by an Indiana community since 2019.

This was Nicholson’s first trip since taking office at the beginning of 2020, and it was Plump’s 31st trip to Japan.

“A very good, productive trip,” Plump said. “The companies were pleased to meet the mayor, and we had great discussions with them about their future plans for our area.”

The trip included a visit to Aisin Corp. in the Nagoya area, which offered Nicholson and Plump the opportunity to meet President Moritaka Yoshida, who assumed his position a year ago after 40-plus years at Toyota.

They also met with former chairman of the board Kanshiro Toyoda, who was instrumental in Aisin selecting Seymour for its first U.S. manufacturing operation in 1986 and subsequent investments in Crothersville and Seymour.

“Not to state the obvious, but a very impressive company,” Nicholson said after the visit, which also included discussions on upcoming changes to the automotive industry.

Plump said he was interested in hearing the Japanese perspective on one of those changes: Electrification.

“If you look at parts that are made throughout south central Indiana, not all of those parts are going to be needed once, if and when the automotive companies go to the electrification, so what were they really thinking about electrification, what were their plans if this goes into electrification?” he said.

For example, Aisin Drivetrain in Crothersville earlier this year announced a $55 million investment all about parts for electrification.

“Just a ton of questions,” Plump said. “Can we get the infrastructure for electric vehicles? It’s all good to say you can plug it in at your house, but if you’re going to make a trip to Florida, you’re not going to plug it into your house and wake up tomorrow morning in Florida without stopping to recharge, so there are just a lot of questions, and I think that even the Japanese are looking at ‘What does this really mean?’”

In meetings with Japanese officials, Plump said they talked a lot about theories and hydrogen as opposed to electric vehicles for fuel.

“That industry is really, really evolving right now, and it was good, I think, for us to hear from them what their thoughts were,” he said.

Nicholson recalled seeing electric vehicle items in a museum in Japan.

“They seem to be very much on top of that,” he said.

Prior to the trip to Nagoya, Nicholson and Plump were in Tokyo to meet with several companies and trade organizations, including Nippon Steel Pipe, formerly Seymour Tubing. There, they met with Nick Hiro, who recently returned to Japan after spending time in Seymour as president of the local Nippon facility.

They also attended an international trade show in Kobe with Indiana officials headquartered in Japan.

“We talked to a couple of new companies there, one of which makes chargers, and so is that an opportunity for new investment in the future (in Jackson County)?” Plump said.

In addition, a meeting with the Japan External Trade Organization offered Nicholson and Plump a good overview of the Japanese economy post-COVID. Other meetings were held with management of Cummins Japan and the trade organization of Toyota. There’s a joint venture with Cummins Komatsu in Seymour.

“We were also able to meet with Paul Roland, who currently heads up the Japan office for the state of Indiana, as well as past directors of the Indiana office,” Nicholson said. “That really provided me with a good history of Jackson County’s work in Japan.”

Nicholson said it was interesting to hear them pitch Indiana while he was in Japan.

Since Gov. Robert Orr in the early 1980s, Plump said there has been a demonstrated emphasis in the state on Japan and other international areas and having staff in those countries to work on potential investments.

In a 10-county region in south central Indiana, Plump said there are more than 50 Japanese companies.

His first trip to Japan was in 1986 right after Aisin chose to establish in Seymour.

“Primarily, it was to meet with the Japanese families that were going to be coming over, and we spent a great deal of time meeting with them,” he said. “That was really the start, and then obviously, once Aisin came, there became other opportunities for Jackson County to attract more Japanese companies.”

That continued as a way to meet with officials from existing companies, talk to potential new companies and build relationships.

“From a Japanese standpoint, there’s nothing that’s more important than building those relationships,” Plump said.

Nicholson said he was glad to finally get a chance to travel to Japan.

“Mayor (Craig) Luedeman went eight times to Japan and went to Europe I know at least once,” he said of his predecessor.

“I knew that it was something that needed to happen,” he said. “The way I think about it is Aisin being here, O&k, Nippon … those things don’t just magically happen. Somehow, the city of Seymour got onto their maps, and so I understand that this is part of the process is going over there and getting some face time with companies and making sure they remember us when they’ve got worldwide expansions coming on.”

So far this year, Japanese companies have invested more than $80 million in their Jackson County facilities, which will help create 83 jobs and retain nearly 2,800 workers.

Nicholson and Plump both hope their recent trip to Japan will result in more investment locally.

“Yeah, you hope. It’s why you do it,” Plump said.

“I heard the phrase ‘You’re three years out’ while we were there, that things you’re working on now, you won’t see for three years or so, so it’s hard to say what comes out of it,” Nicholson said.

He said one company they couldn’t meet with on the trip recently reached out and was going to come visit Seymour, and Plump attended the Midwest U.S. Japan Association Conference in Chicago, Illinois, this past weekend. Both could result in investment here.

Next year, that conference will be in Tokyo, and Plump said JCIDC will meet in the fourth quarter to look at next year’s budget to see if another trip to Japan is possible.

“That won’t be decided until we get through the budget process and get into next year and put our marketing plan together,” he said.