Nashville Business Journal: Lamar Alexander honored by Japanese emperor

Posted on October 17, 2012

What's an award from a Japanese emperor worth?

It might be hard to place a specific value, depending upon your affinity for high honors from foreign leaders, but there are some ways to quantify it. How about this: investment by 170 Japanese companies, employing 35,000 Tennessee workers.

That's the amount of economic activity U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said ties back to Tennessee's relationship with the Japanese. It's a relationship he famously minted as governor of Tennessee on a trip to Japan in 1979, and one he said is a credit to the state overall for welcoming the Japanese just in time for a wave of economic development.

"We had the good fortune to be at the head of the line," he said.

Alexander's role in all that economic development — and the goodwill it took to carry it off — has earned him the "Order of the Rising Sun" award. He'll receive it tonight from Motohiko Kato, Japan's new consul-general in Nashville, on behalf of Japanese Emperor Akihito.

The story of Alexander traveling to Japan in 1979 is famous by now and, as we've outlined before, an example of how personal touch by high officials can make a difference despite shifts in the economic development game. Reflecting on it today, Alexander said Nissan agreeing to come to Tennessee was a watershed, both for Japanese investment since and for investment by auto makers like General Motors Corp. and Volkswagen years later.

While Alexander and others describe the Tennessee-Japan relationship as not only lucrative but warm, it hasn't been without its challenges.

Alexander remembers when tensions led some to propose calling the road leading to Nissan's plant "Pearl Harbor Boulevard." He said he puts that, as well as efforts for English-only and strict immigration reform in the state, in the same category of standing to send the wrong message to the state's Japanese trading partners.

Tonight, however, will be all about celebrating what the relationship has produced. Alexander, who went to Japan when President Jimmy Carter encouraged governors to do so, mused that the journey was a whole new venture after winning election as governor.

"I thought, 'Well, I'd walked all the way across Tennessee, and nobody even suggested that I go to Japan," he said.