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Editorial: Trade: Doing it right

June 30, 1998

In the last 20 years, U.S. politicians who wanted to demonstrate that they were serious about economic development put together trade missions to Japan, sometimes opening trade offices in that Asian nation as well. But those efforts often met with mixed success, for reasons that weren't always clear at the time.

That wasn't true of West Virginia, which has brought in 13 Japanese-owned companies and a university, in large part due to the efforts of U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., whose interest in the Pacific rim dates back to his childhood. The story, as told in a two-part series by Associated Press writer Brett Martel, demonstrates that when it comes to trade with Asia, the more experience you have, the better.

Unlike most would-be trade experts, Rockefeller actually lived in Japan as a young man, studying the language and traveling into remote areas of the country while attending International Christian University near Tokyo. He also wrote stories for national U.S. magazines - Life and The New York Times supplement - about Japanese student life.

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Friendships formed during those years have lasted a lifetime and include Emperor Akihito and Scoichiro Toyoda, now the head of the Toyota car company. Because of Rockefeller's immersion in Japanese culture, AP's Martell notes, he knew it made more sense to put West Virginia's trade office in Nagoya, a Japanese manufacturing center, than in Tokyo.

Of course, at this late date it's impossible for those who don't have Rockefeller's life experiences to duplicate them, but there are some lessons for the rest of us.

The first is that the next time someone proposes setting up a foreign trade mission, taxpayers ought to ask them which experts on the targeted country will be involved. Amateurs will not only fail, but may also hurt a state's chance to succeed in the future.

The second and most important lesson is that while numbers may make a deal with a foreign company attractive, it's trust and relationships that make it work, whether your name is Jay Rockefeller or John Doe.

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