It wasn't exactly a secret, but for years Japan's rise as a financial powerhouse somehow escaped the attention of a lot of Florida business leaders hot in pursuit of economic growth.
"We were looking inward instead of outward because that was just the way we had done things," said Gov. Lawton Chiles. "Some of the other states, even our poorer neighbors, moved out in front of us."
Now that Floridians have discovered the value of the yen, they're attempting to make up for lost time. This week in Orlando, Chiles leads a delegation of business and political leaders that aims to show the Japanese just how hospitable the state can be. The ceremonies, speeches and entertainment begin today.
"This is not just another meeting," said Tampa lawyer John C. Bierley. "This is the international meeting of the decade in Florida."
It's the 18th annual joint meeting of the Southeast U.S./Japan Association and its Japanese counterpart, the Japan/U.S. Southeast Association.
The Floridians' turn as hosts comes once every 14 years, providing an opportunity to show off the state and to rub shoulders with influential Japanese, such as conference co-chairman Takashi Ishihara, who recently stepped down as chairman of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. Other speakers include top executives of Fuji Bank Ltd., Mitsubishi Corp. and Toshiba Corp.
About 200 Japanese and 500 Americans from seven states will attend the three-day event. Bierley, the U.S. co-chairman, wants them to have a great time and go home with lots of warm feelings about Florida and each other.
His long-range objective is more concrete _ money and jobs for Floridians.
"In efforts like the Florida Aquarium and almost every other public and private project of considerable size around the state, you see evidence of Japanese financing," Bierley said. "This delegation is laced with the chairmen of important Japanese banking and financial institutions. It's important what these financial leaders think about us because they're making decisions all the time as to whether they'll participate in some of these Florida projects."
In the past few years, the state has made efforts to establish business relationships with Japan, including the reopening of a Department of Commerce outpost in Tokyo.
However, Bierley says Florida business leaders are just beginning to understand the connection between warm hospitality and cold cash.
When Georgia played host to the Southeast U.S./Japan meeting two years ago, it closed Stone Mountain park to the public to entertain delegates in style, Bierley said. Four years ago, when it was South Carolina's turn, that state threw a gala party at a plantation outside Charleston. Delegates rode horse-drawn carriages in a torchlight parade.
"Through efforts like that, states like South Carolina get BMW plants," Bierley said.
Other Southern states religiously send their governors to the annual Southeast U.S./Japan meeting, even when it's held in Japan, as it is every other year. The last time a Florida governor attended was four years ago, when Bob Martinez dropped in for a few hours.
"When the Japanese were beginning to put some of their assets here, those other states really went after them, courted them and gave them deals," Chiles said. "Florida just continued to follow its old (growth) strategy of low wages, low taxes and sunshine."
Today Florida has 21 Japanese-owned manufacturing plants while Georgia has 81 and South Carolina 91, according to figures compiled by the Japan External Trade Organization.
Japan is the second-largest export market (Canada is first) for six of the seven other states belonging to the Southeast U.S./Japan Association. Japan is Florida's fifth-largest market, accounting for only 1.5 percent of the state's exports last year.
Chiles, who canceled plans to go to Tokyo last fall because of the state budget crisis, is expected to be a highly visible figure at the Orlando meeting. His wife, Rhea, will act as hostess for a trip to Cypress Gardens by delegates' spouses. Former Gov. Reubin Askew, who led last year's Florida delegation to Tokyo, also is expected to be in Orlando, along with dozens of other state business and political leaders.
The state, through the Florida International Affairs Commission, is picking up $110,000 of the meeting's estimated $500,000 tab. Private companies will chip in at least $200,000 more. Delegates and the other states also pay part of the costs.
Bierley and others planning the Orlando meeting decided to scrap the traditional semiformal banquet and try to impress visitors with a more informal style of entertaining.
Today's first event is a tournament at the Grand Cypress Resort Golf Course featuring $30,000 in donated prizes. The 112 participants, who play in Japanese-American pairs, will include only four women. To wrangle a spot in the tournament, U.S. players generally must be high-ranking government or business leaders or big contributors to the association.
Tonight there's a a poolside buffet at Marriott's Orlando World Center, the convention headquarters. Monday night, Universal Studios will be closed to the public and turned over to the delegates.
Most of the food served at convention events will be American, although the Marriott has a Japanese chef who can accommodate any guests longing for a taste of home.
The meetings will revolve around carefully scripted ceremonies and speeches on trade and economics. Bierley says he doesn't expect a single business deal to be signed.
"That's not the way the Japanese do things," he said.
Doing business with Japan
Many smaller southeastern states have been more sucessful than Florida in building business relationships with the Japanese. Florida ranks fourth out of seven states in exports to Japan and sixth out of seven in Japanese-owned manufacturing plants.
STATE VALUE OF 1991 WHERE JAPAN NUMBERS OF
ORIGIN EXPORTS RANKS AMONG JAPANESE OWNED
TO JAPAN STATE'S EXPORT MANUFACTURING
Alabama $143,212,315 2nd 20
Florida $664,863,505 5th 21
Georgia $854,541,714 2nd 81
No. Carolina $1,165,060,020 2nd 49
So. Carolina $301,681,492 2nd 91
Tennessee $343,308,910 2nd 52
Virginia $1,294,524,288 2nd 22
Sources: University of Massachusetts MISER data, Japan External Trade Organization.