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New Aerospace, Economic Collaboration Advancing Washington's Partnership with Japan


In considering the question of ways that developments at the local level reflect, and contribute to, US-Asia relations, Washington State’s relationship with Japan is a good place to start. Historically on the front lines of fluctuating currents in US-Japan relations, Washington’s evolving relationship with Japan reflects broader dynamics in national-level ties, while highlighting new approaches for expanding this bilateral relationship.

Washington plays an important role in US-Japan economic, educational, cultural, and security ties, as outlined in the East-West Center’s Japan Matters for America. The second-largest US state exporter to Japan, Washington exported $8.5 billion in goods and services to Japan in 2014, accounting for 8 percent of all Washington exports that year and supporting an estimated 52,666 jobs in Washington. Of the state’s $6.2 billion in goods exports to Japan that year, transportation equipment including commercial airplanes accounted for $3.3 billion, with food products, forestry, agricultural products the next largest collective category. Japanese investment contributes significantly to Washington’s economy, with 102 Japanese majority-owned firms supporting 13,400 jobs in the state. Japanese visitors and students also contribute significantly to Washington’s economy, with an estimated impact of $491 million and $51 million respectively in 2014. Washington State and its communities have more than 34 sister relationships across Japan, and are home to a historic and prominent Japanese-American community of more than 38,000 people. The US Army Pacific I Corps headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County participates in Yama Sakura, an annual bilateral command post exercise that simulates Japanese-US military operations required to defend Japan as part of the bilateral alliance.

The strands binding Washington and Japan run deep, while also reflecting new directions and opportunities in the bilateral relationship. Perhaps one good metaphor is Japanese Gulch, a ravine in Mukilteo that was once the location of a historic Japanese community of immigrant workers employed at a nearby lumber mill. Today, oversized aerospace parts manufactured in Japan for Boeing’s 747, 767, 777, and 787 airplanes are transported through Japanese Gulch from a nearby shipping terminal up a rail to Boeing’s Everett airplane manufacturing facility—many destined for jets that will be flown by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines (ANA).

Aerospace is at the center of Washington’s economic ties with Japan, and one that is growing in an increasingly integrated manner. The Boeing 787 is often said to be “made with Japan”: 35 percent of its components, including its composite wing, are manufactured there, and ANA was the plane’s launch customer. As Japan works to expand its domestic aerospace manufacturing capabilities, Washington State is a natural partner. On September 28, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s new MRJ-90 regional jet—Japan’s first domestic airliner in 50 years—landed at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, where it will undergo flight tests on a runway that was previously used by Japan Airlines pilots over more than 40 years for training.

Cooperation in the aerospace sector is a central component of new, project-oriented economic cooperation memorandums of understanding that Washington State signed with Mie Prefecture in August 2014, and with Japan in June 2016. The Washington-Japan agreement—only the second signed between a US state with Japan, after California—offers a blueprint of sorts for the kinds of initiatives that will be guiding and expanding Washington’s economic activities with Japan into the future. Beyond the established sectors of aerospace and agriculture, the agreement calls for cooperation in clean energy research and development, and new fields in information and communication technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things; dialogue and joint projects on climate change mitigation; and city-to-city level engagement on medical and life sciences, among others. These are areas of increasing economic activity and investment between Washington and Japan, as will be explored in future articles in this series. The MOU also seeks to facilitate activities to address disaster risk reduction and disruptions to port and other logistics generated by natural disasters, an important topic of discussion during Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s visit to Washington’s sister state of Hyogo Prefecture, Japan in September 2015, and an area in which communities in the seismically-active Pacific Northwest have much to learn from Japan’s experiences and expertise.

While these examples only scratch the surface of the much broader scope of connections linking Washington State and Japan, they reflect the common element of partnership that increasingly characterizes the US-Japan relationship as a whole. With the US and Japan increasingly integrated—both economically, and around common values—these partnerships will become all the more vital, while also offering frameworks for ways in which US communities can develop and build new kinds of relationships with other Asian counterparts.

Sean Connell is a guest contributor to Asia Matters for America. He is employed by the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (Washington), and is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. This is an ongoing, multi-part series on the impacts and interrelationships between Washington State and the Asia-Pacific region. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any organization with which the author is affiliated. For more in this series, see Part I here and Part II here.