Hino success latest example of Almost Heavenly Japanese-West Virginia relations

Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, with the Japanese Consulate General’s office in New York, speaks during a ceremony celebrating Hino Motors’ new truck manufacturing plant in Parkersburg Wednesday. Yamanouchi praised the relationship between his country and the Mountain State. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

PARKERSBURG — Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, with the Japanese Consulate General’s office in New York, is a fan of West Virginia.

“They say this is a Mountain State,” a beaming Yamanouchi said to workers and dignitaries at Wednesday’s grand opening of Hino Motors’ truck manufacturing plant in Parkersburg. “But I say this is an ‘Almost Heaven’ state.”

In addition to referencing the popular West Virginia descriptor, Yamanouchi outlined other examples of his fondness for the state. He said the lyrics of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” are well-known by himself and other Japanese residents and cited the efforts of “Rocket Boys” author Homer Hickam in training Japan’s first astronauts.

He also called former Sen. Jay Rockefeller — who helped build the relationship between West Virginia and Japan after studying in the country in his youth — an inspiration.

Yamanouchi had clearly done his homework in advance of making the trip to Wood County to celebrate the Japanese-based Hino’s new facility off West Virginia 14 near Mineral Wells. He praised the company’s choice to set up shop in the state based on its natural beauty, welcoming community and delicious food, specifically citing West Virginia’s trademark pepperoni rolls.

Ambassador Kanji Yamanouchi, fourth from left, leads Hino Motors officials, West Virginia leaders and other guests in a thumbs up for the new Hino Motors plant in Parkersburg following a ceremonial tree planting Wednesday at the facility. (Photo by Evan Bevins)

Echoing the words of state and company leaders, Yamanouchi said the first and foremost aspect in the appeal of the state is its workforce. More than 5,000 Japanese companies have investments in the United States, 45 of them in West Virginia, he said.

“If they know the reality, the truthfulness of this state, I am sure more and more companies (will) come here,” he said.

During the ceremony, Hino officials announced plans to invest another $40 million in the facility and add 250 jobs in the coming years.

The state has emphasized recruiting Japanese investment for more than three decades, including a West Virginia Development Office location established in the city of Nagoya in 1990, under the leadership of Rockefeller and then-Gov. Gaston Caperton. According to the Development Office website, Japanese investments in the state total $2.7 billion and there are 21 Japanese companies with operations in the state, responsible for more than 4,000 jobs.

In addition to Hino, these include Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Buffalo, which announced a major expansion earlier this year; K.S. of West Virginia in Ravenswood; and Kuraray at the Washington Works site in Wood County.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Wednesday that he believes the renowned Japanese work ethic has found a match here.

“The work ethic of West Virginia is the same,” he said.

Manchin said his first trip as governor in 2005 was to Japan, alongside Rockefeller, to thank companies that had invested in the state.

“But we were on the lookout” for other companies with which to work, he said.

They found Hino, which was already located in the U.S. as part of the Toyota Auto Body Consortium in California, but was looking to establish its own facility.

“Williamstown was their first choice,” Manchin said.

Yamanouchi emphasized the relationship between Japan and the U.S. is not limited to Tokyo and Washington or interactions between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump.

“Thank you, thank you very much for expanding our friendship here in West Virginia,” he said.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.