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Georgia's got what Japan wants

Six years before Hollywood star Kim Basinger bought this tiny North Georgia town, Mutsuo Mizuno had a similar idea. Mizuno, an executive with the Japanese corporate giant, Mitsubishi Electronics, didn't want the whole town, just a part of it.

He and other Mitsubishi executives had scoured the East Coast looking for a place to locate a color television and cellular telephone plant. In time, they had narrowed the search to the Southeast, then to Georgia, then to the northern edges of the Atlanta area.

But the perfect site had eluded Mizuno. Until, that is, he took a long drive on Interstate 85 north of Atlanta, past the suburban tract houses, the industrial parks and Waffle Houses.

At the Braselton exit, Mizuno found what he had been looking for: 100 acres nestled along the interstate, suitable for manufacturing.

Mitsubishi bought the land from the Braselton family, and when the plant opened, in September 1986, people here thought it would be the biggest thing ever to happen to their small town. Few of them had heard of Kim Basinger.

But if the coming of Mitsubishi was a red-letter day for Braselton, this sort of thing has become rather routine in Georgia. According to state government figures, there are 276 Japanese-owned plants, distribution centers and offices in Georgia, employing more than 16,000 people.

Only California has more Japanese facilities. And in the Southeast, only Tennessee _ with its huge Nissan auto plant _ has more employees of Japanese companies.

What is the attraction?

According to Japan watchers in Atlanta, it is a combination of tenacity and convenience.

Georgia's industrial recruiters have been courting the Japanese longer than any other Southeastern state _ since Jimmy Carter was governor. In the early 1970s, Carter led the first high-level Georgia trade mission to Tokyo. He opened the first permanent Georgia office there in 1973. And he landed the first Japanese plant in Georgia.

But convenience _ in the form of Atlanta's sprawling Hartsfield International Airport _ also has played a role.

Because of Hartsfield's extensive air connections, the Japanese government located its Southeastern counsel general's office in Atlanta. Others followed: Japanese banks and trading companies, distribution centers and, finally, factories.

But even that doesn't explain the Japanese enthusiasm for Georgia.

John A. Savage, the highest ranking American at the Braselton Mitsubishi plant, says that intuition _ "does it feel right?" _ plays a role in Japanese business decisions.

And, according to Savage and others, for many subtle reasons, the Atlanta area simply feels right to Japanese business executives.

A good example is the Southeast U.S.-Japan Association. The association, whose purpose is to promote business ties, meets once a year, alternating between a Southeastern state and Japan.

Earlier this month, it was Georgia's turn to host the gathering, and it pulled out all the stops, even carting guests to Stone Mountain Park, outside Atlanta, for an improbable dinner of barbecue and sushi, plus a laser show.

Carter addressed the group. So did Japan's ambassador to the United States, Ryohei Murata.

Such lavish attention makes a difference, observers say. And it is particularly important to the protocol-minded Japanese that Georgia's top business and political leaders have so diligently pursued Japanese investment.

Three Georgia governors _ Carter, George Busbee and Joe Frank Harris _ have visited Japan. That has made an impression on Japanese business leaders, said George Lancaster, a former official with the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism.

"(Georgia's governors) went out of their way to get the Japanese to locate in Georgia and to make friends in Japan," Lancaster noted.

Most other Southeastern states have learned from Georgia's experience. At the recent Southeast U.S.-Japan Association meeting in Atlanta, every Southeastern governor was there but one. Gov. Bob Martinez sent Commerce Secretary William L. Sutton in his place.

The Atlanta area holds other attractions for the Japanese. One is simply the large number who already live there _ about 5,600.

That is enough to support two Atlanta area "Saturday schools" _ schools that teach language courses to Japanese school children to keep them up with their grade levels back home.

It is also enough for a daily Japanese news show on one of the smaller Atlanta television stations.

These amenities make a difference, said Emory University economist Jeffrey A. Rosensweig, who specializes in foreign investments. "The Japanese like to be around other Japanese," he said. ".


. And whoever gets there first (in persuading the Japanese to open plants and offices) usually finds it easier to attract other Japanese."

Kikuhiro Iwahori, vice president and general manager of Tomen America Inc., a Japanese trading company, agrees with this but only to a point.

"New companies that open offices or manufacturing facilities here with employees from Japan will not be isolated," he said at his office in suburban Atlanta.

But, he added, Japanese companies favor Georgia for more practical _ and bottom-line _ reasons. Labor and land costs, ease of transportation access and the state's assistance in training employees are major reasons for locating in the Atlanta area, Iwahori explained.

But even Iwahori admits there is one intangible factor that the Japanese enjoy: the politeness of Georgians.

"Southern hospitality may encourage a Japanese company to come to Georgia," Iwahori said.