Japan is playing an important role in Kentucky’s economy. In 2014, President Obama created five economic zones throughout the US. Named “Promise Zones,” the purpose of these zones is to help economically disadvantaged areas gain a competitive advantage at securing federal investment. One of the Promise Zones is in Eastern Kentucky, comprised of eight counties. Last September, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear announced that Kowa Kentucky Inc., a subsidiary of a Japanese metalworking company, will build its first North American plant in the city of Corbin in Knox County, which falls within the Promise Zone. In a city that was the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Kowa will create 30 jobs and invest over $8.3 million in the project in Corbin, and expects the number of jobs to triple by 2018.
Kowa is just one in a line of Japanese companies investing in Kentucky. In April 2014, Funai Electric opened up a facility for electronic research and development in Lexington, creating 50 jobs and investing $4.2 million. Since 2012, 52 Japanese companies have invested over $1.2 billion in Kentucky and Japan is the number one Asian destination for the state’s exports.
The Bluegrass State also shares cultural ties to Japan. Yuko-en on the Elkhorn in Georgetown is the state’s Official Japanese Friendship Garden. This six acre garden fuses Kentucky’s famous Bluegrass with Japanese-styled landscaping. Kentucky also has six sister cities with Japan. Several of these sister city partnerships were created in part because of Japanese car manufacturers strong presence in the state, such as in Owensboro and Elizabethtown. Lexington’s sister city program with Shinhidaka was founded because of their mutual connection to the horse industry.
Whether through mutual cultural interests or through meaningful investment, the Japan-Kentucky connection is both deep and growing.
Nina Geller is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.