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Japanese Hear Upbeat Message on California : Trade: Wilson hits the ground running--and talking--at start of 17-day mission to extol the virtues of doing business in the state.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California’s preeminent pitchman, Gov. Pete Wilson, barnstormed through here Monday proclaiming that the Golden State is back in business.

Wilson, on his first day of a 17-day trade mission to four Asian nations, sought to arrest an image of California as hostile to business and neglectful of Japan. In meetings with the media and government and industry leaders, the governor touted recent legislative reforms to improve California’s business climate, including changes in the unitary tax and workers’ compensation systems.

He also marketed California as a “gateway to Mexico” for Japanese firms to take advantage of the recently approved North American Free Trade Agreement.

On just three hours of sleep, Wilson completed a busy schedule that began with a breakfast of french toast with American executives and ended with nouvelle California cuisine courtesy of Sony Corp. Chairman Akio Morita.

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In between, in meetings with U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale, Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and executives from Toshiba Corp., the governor said California is correcting course and intends to compete fiercely for job-creating Japanese investments that have declined amid the prolonged recession and competition from other states.

“In California, for three years now, we’ve waged war against burdensome regulations and taxes that were hurting every business operating in our state,” Wilson said in a speech before the American Chamber of Commerce. “We are open for business--and our customers are buying.”

With the state jobless rate hovering near 10%, California officials see increased Pacific Rim trade and investment as a promising engine of economic growth. In 1992, the Asian region bought $31 billion worth of California goods, accounting for 45% of the state’s exports. Japan was the biggest buyer, at $9.7 billion.

The economic relationship with Japan supports 340,000 jobs, with Japanese firms and affiliates directly employing 146,400 Californians. Japanese companies also invested $27.3 billion in California property, plants and equipment, or 33% of total foreign direct investment, according to state government figures.

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Since 1990, however, California companies have lost an estimated $600 million in sales because of Japan’s worsening recession. And the drying up of investment dollars has led at least seven state trade offices in Tokyo to close their doors in the last few years.

Bucking that trend, Wilson used his visit to make another highly symbolic gesture that California is back in the ballgame: the official introduction of a new director of the Tokyo trade office.

For the past two years, the office has been limping along without a full-time chief and barely survived an Assembly vote last year to close it. The Legislature reversed course after Wilson argued that pulling out would send the wrong message to Japan--especially since then-Gov. Ronald Reagan shuttered the office in 1973 and ’74.

Jonathan Kaji, a 37-year-old Japanese American with a diverse small-business background, took up the post this month. Kaji faces the daunting task of drumming up business amid the most severe recession in decades, on a limited expense account in the most expensive city in the world.

But Kaji, who speaks some Japanese, has tackled the seemingly impossible before. He’s the man who found a loophole in the Japanese law banning foreign rice by selling gift-boxes of California rice to Japanese tourists in duty-free shops.

Earlier in the day, Wilson announced that NEC Corp. will expand its semiconductor plant in Roseville, Calif., adding 250 jobs with a $200-million investment.

All told, Wilson is expected to hold 80 meetings over 17 days in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He’s traveling with a 36-member delegation of state officials and executives from Arco, Sunkist, Rockwell International and Farmers Rice Cooperative, among others.


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