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Remarks at U.S.-Japan Council 2012 Conference in Seattle, Washington

Friday, October 5, 2012

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks at U.S.-Japan Council 2012 Conference in Seattle, Washington

The U.S.-Japan alliance remains a cornerstone of security and prosperity throughout the region and the world.

And it’s clear that many of the people in this room have been important in helping to nourish the strong, ongoing relationship between the U.S. and Japan.

For those of us who live in D.C., the most vivid reminder of U.S.-Japan friendship comes every spring when the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington. 

People from around the world descend on America’s capital. They watch the forecasts carefully, hoping they will catch the short window of time–just a week or two– when the blossoms frame our monuments in pink and white.

That annual reminder of the U.S.-Japan friendship has taken on deeper meaning over the past five years as both countries have worked together to confront challenges and overcome adversity–and that’s what I’d like to speak to today.

The first challenge, of course, was the most recent recession.

In the fall of 2008, the U.S. financial system was on the brink of collapse, stocks were plummeting, as were housing values. When President Obama took office, we were losing 750,000 jobs each month–that’s more than the population of Seattle.

As you all know, Japan’s economy–in part due to its strong export-oriented economy–was also hit hard by the global slowdown in 2008 and 2009.

In the U.S., President Obama took the actions necessary to turn that economic disaster around:

  • The Recovery Act that the president signed prevented the loss of 1.5 to three million additional jobs, according to independent analysts.
  • We stabilized our financial sector through the actions of our Treasury Department. 
  • We prevented the U.S. auto industry–and all of its extensive supply chain–from going bankrupt (and more).

Within five months of President Obama’s taking office, the economy stopped contracting and economic growth began. We have now had three years of steady growth, with over five million new private sector jobs created in the past 31 months–and we just heard this morning that we added over 100,000 more last month.

We’re moving in the right direction, but we still have a ways to go.

  • Growth is stable but slower than anyone would like.
  • Unemployment has fallen substantially as we also saw today–but needs to keep going down.
  • And we’ve faced some ongoing headwinds that we couldn’t control, including the crisis in the Eurozone and several oil price spikes. 

But the U.S. economy is growing and will continue to grow. That’s good news for both the U.S. and Japan–two of the world’s strongest economic powers.

As U.S. growth has strengthened, we have several opportunities on the horizon to expand our already strong bilateral economic and commercial relationship.

I’ll start with the area of bilateral trade–much of which goes in and out of ports here in the Pacific Northwest. 

The two-way trade of goods between the U.S. and Japan is quickly returning to the levels we saw before the recession hit–over $190 billion last year. In fact, if the second half of 2012 is as strong as the first, we will break a new record.   

The Commerce Department has been hard at work to help meet Japanese demand for Made-in-America goods and services. 

Our 36 commercial service officers and staff in Tokyo and Osaka have already counseled nearly 2,000 companies this year–more than any other post in the world. U.S. companies–including many represented here–are working to meet Japan’s needs for everything from medical instruments, to machines, to aircraft, to agriculture.

Yet still, it’s important to note that–over the past two decades–the U.S.-Japan trade imbalance of goods has remained roughly between 50 and 90 billion dollars.

So here in the U.S., we want to ensure a strong and balanced trade relationship with Japan. And one of the ways we do that is by building on the U.S. strength in the area of services–a 70-billion-dollar trade relationship in which the U.S. has a surplus of about $17 billion. 

Travel and tourism–America’s strongest services export–is a great example of where we are focusing. Not everyone knows that when someone from Japan visits the U.S. and buys things, that counts as an export.

So far this year, the number of visits from Japanese tourists in the U.S. is up over 13 percent from last year. For 2012, this means we are projected to reach levels we haven’t seen since before the recession hit (2006). 

We want to build on that momentum–not just because it will help lead to more balanced trade–but also because it promotes greater understanding between our people and our cultures.  That’s critically important.

On a broader level, this approach is highlighted in the administration’s new National Travel and Tourism Strategy. We want people from all over the world to come and see all that America has to offer.

That’s why we’re working across government and with the private sector on improvements ranging from streamlined visa processing, to better customer service by border patrol officers at airports, to more support for the many small businesses and tourism agencies in this industry.

For example, the Commerce Department recently awarded a grant to the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, which they will use to attract more Japanese tourists to see the 10 states along the Mississippi River. The organization already has a website in Japanese. Now, they’re going to leverage the new funds to advertise further in the Japanese market and to build a social media app that will allow Japanese tourists to explore 70 sites along the river–with explanations about the importance of these sites available in Japanese.

Beyond sector-specific efforts to foster more U.S. exports and more balance in our trade relationship, there are broader opportunities as well.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are a good example.  With Canada and Mexico joining next week, a total of 11 countries are either members or negotiating to join the TPP.

It’s been nearly a year since Japan announced its desire to start consultations with TPP members on the possibility of its participation in negotiations.  The U.S. has welcomed that interest, and our consultations continue – just as it has with other countries that have expressed interest. 

We look to Japan to be prepared to meet the TPP’s high standards for liberalizing trade, including specific issues of concern to the U.S. This includes removing barriers–including non-tariff barriers–to trade in the manufacturing, agriculture, and services sectors. The administration stands ready to continue to work with Japan to address these concerns.

Beyond our trade relationship, a second key area that we can build on to help speed economic recovery in both the U.S. and Japan is bilateral investment.

Both U.S. investment in Japan and Japanese investment in the U.S. have grown by over 20 percent from 2009 to 2011. That’s good news.

Japan is the second-largest source of foreign direct investment into the U.S. We welcome Japanese investment in the U.S. because we know that every day, about 650,000 Americans get up and go to work because Japanese-owned companies have built facilities here in the U.S.

I recently gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in which I talked about how the moment is right for more foreign direct investment in the U.S.–from all over the world.

I’m hearing from many CEOs–especially manufacturers both here in the U.S. and abroad–who are saying that the U.S. is where they expect to put their next investment. 

They cite our strong consumer base, our long-term energy outlook, our universities, our productive workforce and much more. 

At Commerce, we’ve started a new program called SelectUSA that will help business leaders–including those in Japan–who see investing in the U.S. as their next step.

As you may know, our commercial service officers in Tokyo and Osaka have long helped to promote exports by American businesses to Japan. Through SelectUSA, we have trained them for an additional job–to provide Japanese business leaders with information about how to invest in the U.S. We will link those leaders to local and state economic development offices in the U.S. which are eager to attract those investments and get deals done.

More bilateral investment–in both directions–clearly translates to more jobs and greater prosperity in both countries.

And as we trade more with each other and invest more in each other, it’s natural that we will continue to deepen the person-to-person ties between our countries.

And those ties are crucial, especially when either the U.S. or Japan suffers from an unexpected disaster–as we all saw on March 11, 2011.

The entire United States mourned the loss of the thousands of Japanese citizens who died in the tsunami. 

And we quickly took action. As you know, Operation Tomodachi was immediately launched deploying 24,000 members of the U.S. military to help with the disaster.

But I’m not sure that everyone is familiar with the professionalism and dedication that Commerce Department employees showed. So thank you for letting me take just a moment to recognize their work…

Our Japan commercial service officers and trade experts–both in Japan and Washington–dropped everything when they saw what had happened. 

A deluge of calls started coming in. “How can my company help? Who should we talk to about shipping supplies? Where can we give money?”

This team worked closely with those companies around the clock. They expedited relief shipments of all kinds, including crucial medicine and medical supplies to those who were injured or who had left their medications behind.

They didn’t stop there.

In the weeks that followed, it became clear that Japan needed more of the world’s top experts to help with cleanup and remediation. So, earlier this year, the Departments of Commerce and Energy led a trade mission with about 60 business leaders representing 30 of America’s top firms in that industry.

And today, that work continues as American businesses are on the ground–working hand-in-hand with local businesses and government leaders at all levels. 

Of course, as the immediate needs were met, I’m pleased that we did not simply close the book. Instead, we found new ways to deepen our friendship.

Most visibly, Ambassador Roos has helped lead the Tomodachi Initiative.

I understand that the first summer of the Tomodachi Initiative’s student exchange program ended just a few weeks ago with a celebration at his residence.  With future funding commitments in place to support these exchanges, it sounds like it’s only going to get bigger and better in the years ahead.

In addition, as someone who often interacts with entrepreneurs and business leaders, I’m particularly pleased by the fact that entrepreneurship and leadership is one of the three pillars of the Tomodachi Initiative. 

This is a logical area for the U.S. and Japan to collaborate.

After all, for decades, both our nations have invested heavily in entrepreneurship and innovation – and I was pleased to see a New York Times article just Wednesday that highlighted the resurgence of entrepreneurship in Japan.

  • Both countries believe strongly that investing in R&D that can lead to new products and industries;
  • Both countries promote and leverage our joint strengths in areas such as science and engineering;
  • And our researchers and business leaders often work together to usher new discoveries and new ideas into the global marketplace.

So I’m thrilled to hear that three teams of young people from Japan will be competing today in the Tomodachi Tohoku Challenge–a business plan competition organized by this council.  I understand that the panel of judges includes entrepreneurs, investors and analysts from both countries. 

I’m sure that these young people will present great ideas about how to help Tohoku grow and emerge from this tragedy stronger than before.

Truly, we are moving forward in a spirit of Tomodachi–of friendship.

And I would be remiss not to say a special thank-you to everyone in this community on behalf of the United States. 

I know that many of the Council’s members, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others worked together to help secure a pledge of support from the government of Japan to help clean up marine debris here on the West Coast, in Alaska and Hawaii, and in Canada. 

I want to express our gratitude for this commitment from the Government of Japan.

As you know, the Department of Commerce, through its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, uses the best science and technology to track debris problems. In this effort, we are collaborating closely with the Government of Japan, across all federal agencies, with state and local governments, and others.

Together, we will collect data, assess potential threats, and work to minimize the potential impact of any tsunami debris on our natural resources and coastal communities. 

The good news is that neither our satellites nor vessels have found any giant debris field–as some had feared. Of course, tracking materials in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean is a difficult task, and we continue our search and monitoring.

Also, the consensus among experts is that it is highly unlikely that tsunami-generated debris would have harmful levels of radiation.

Nevertheless, we will remain alert and prepared whatever comes our way–whether it be something as big as a fishing boat or as small as a soccer ball. 

I don’t know if you heard this story, but a soccer ball turned up 3,000 miles away in Alaska in April, more than a year after the tsunami. On it were the words “Good luck, Murakami” written in Japanese. 

With some effort, David and Yumi Baxter of Alaska found the ball’s 16-year-old owner, Misaka Murakami. They sent it back to the boy, who said he was excited because he had lost everything else in the tsunami.

That story shows how strong the ties between our people have become.

And–as you may know–we will be shipping a few more things across the Pacific in the near future. . . . 

The U.S. government will be sending 3,000 dogwoods to Japan to commemorate the centennial of Japan’s gift of cherry blossoms to the U.S. back in 1912.

My hope is that our friends in Japan will look at those dogwoods in the same way that we look at our cherry blossoms: a beautiful and enduring symbol of the friendship between two great nations. . . .

  • This is a friendship that has emerged stronger in the face of challenge and adversity over the past five years;
  • It is a friendship that will continue to persevere through any kind of disaster or crisis that might arise;
  • And it is a friendship that will lead to greater strength and prosperity for people in both countries as we enter the next 100 years.

Thank you.