It doesn’t bother Steven Schlossman, a builder of spiral staircases, to see the Japanese flex their economic muscle.
When Japanese consumers thumb their noses at American exports--or when Japanese investors buy up U.S. land or skyscrapers or even a baseball team like the Seattle Mariners--it simply reminds Schlossman of America’s economic might in decades past.
“We’re just getting a little of our own cultural medicine,” he said. “How can you get mad at them? I’d rather sell them staircases.”
Spoken like a true Northwesterner.
While Americans elsewhere tend to view the burgeoning economies of Japan and other Asian countries as a threat, many residents of the Pacific Northwest see opportunity instead.
The Northwest has enjoyed a long and profitable relationship with its Pacific Rim neighbors. Exports to Asia from Puget Sound and Columbia River ports have helped Washington, Oregon and Idaho glide through the latest recession relatively unscathed. In Washington, one of every five jobs depends on foreign trade, and Japan is by far the state’s biggest trade partner.
“Trade with Japan and east Asia has always been a significant part of the Northwest economy,” said Paul Isaki, a third-generation Japanese-American who is director of Washington’s Department of Trade and Economic Development. “We have a relatively higher level of appreciation and tolerance for things Japanese.”
That appreciation was underscored by the recent sale of the Seattle Mariners baseball franchise to an investment group led by Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo Co., the Japanese game manufacturer.
Approval of the deal stalled for months while major-league owners wrestled with the idea of foreign ownership. But there was little such soul-searching here.
Nintendo’s U.S. operations are based in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, and Yamauchi invested $75 million in the Mariners only as a favor to Washington state’s political leaders. They had asked for his help in keeping the franchise from leaving Seattle for a place they considered truly foreign--Tampa Bay, Fla.
The Northwest’s Asian connection is hardly new, a fact driven home by a statue of William Seward in Seattle’s Volunteer Park. A plaque on the statue quotes a speech that Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, made in 1852 as a U.S. senator. He urged his fellow congressmen to abandon their European bias and look westward to a brave new world.
“The Pacific Ocean, its shores, its islands, and the vast regions beyond will become the chief theater of events in the world’s great hereafter,” Seward proclaimed.
After 140 years, Northwesterners are still enthusiastic about the Pacific Rim, while East Coasters seem as indifferent as ever.
“It’s different out here,” said Monica Whaley, program director for the Washington Council on International Trade. “The New York corridor is very Atlantic-focused. Europe is what’s happening, and Asia seems a lot farther away than it seems here.
“Asia is part of the culture here. It’s not strange to us to have Asian people around. Business people fly to Hong Kong and Taiwan. They know what time it is there. They know how to dial in.”
The familiarity works both ways, she said: “Foreign visitors tell us there’s a different comfort level when they come to Seattle. They see a lot of faces like their own.”
Nearly 12% of Seattle’s population is of Asian or Pacific Island heritage, compared to just 3% of the total U.S. population.
It’s not all an international love-fest. Twenty-two hate crimes against Asian-Americans were reported last year in Washington, according to the state’s Asian-American Affairs Commission.
Then again, Washington is the only state with an agency devoted exclusively to Asian-American affairs. “That’s a real testament to the political insight of this community,” commission Director Patricia Lee said.
The lesson from the Northwest may be one of economic humility, Isaki said. Asian countries have the world’s fastest-growing economies, and their need for raw materials and technology is something business-minded Americans should heed.
Over the years, the economic connections have led to more cultural awareness. Seattle began a “sister city” relationship with Kobe, Japan, in 1957, and at least a dozen other Washington and Oregon cities have followed suit with their own Japanese sister cities.
While such bonds are often merely symbolic, they can produce more tangible benefits. A sister state relationship between Washington and Japan’s Hyogo prefecture led to the creation of Washington Village, an American-style housing development outside Kobe.
Featuring garages, appliance-laden kitchens and big yards--all rarities in Japan--the houses are built by Japanese craftsmen using lumber, cabinetry and other accessories from Washington.
The project, begun in 1987, has been a resounding success. Fifty-five of the development’s 170 homes have been completed, and Japanese professionals eager to escape their tiny urban apartments have snapped them up at $580,000 to $950,000 apiece.
The secret to success in Asia, many Northwest businessmen find, is to employ the same philosophy that Japanese companies used in developing U.S. markets: Know thy customer.
“They penetrated our market by having a better product. As they found out what Americans wanted, they changed their products to meet Americans’ needs,” said Schlossman, the staircase-builder. “Isn’t it egotistical to think that we’ll send a product to anybody and not meet their needs and have them buy from us?”
Schlossman, whose Tacoma company employs just six workers, says a trip to Japan changed the way he looks at foreign trade.
Professionally, he was impressed by Japanese craftsmen’s attention to detail, and he realized his product would have to match that quality to compete.
But more important, he said, was the connection he made to the people. He and his wife were there as guests of a Japanese exchange student who had lived with them for a year in Washington. The student’s family greeted them warmly, despite the language and cultural barriers.
Schlossman learned that some of the student’s relatives had ties to the building industry, and he gave them some of his company’s brochures.
“I don’t know if I’ll get any business from it, and I don’t care,” he said. “What’s important is this: We found out what the other guy does for a living, and we’re concerned with his lot in life. When the opportunity arises, we’ll help them out if we can. And they’ll do the same for us.”