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Why Japan is heavily invested in North Carolina

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the U.S. He was honored at a state dinner at the White House. He addressed a joint session of Congress, and then he headed to North Carolina. Why North Carolina? Jay Price from member station WUNC is here to explain. Hey, Jay.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Hey there, Scott.

DETROW: So this wasn't even just a quick stop. This was an overnight stay with a lot on the itinerary. Why did the prime minister head to North Carolina?

PRICE: Well, North Carolina and Japan have longstanding economic ties. The state actually maintains an office in Japan to help with that, and it has for decades. Japan is North Carolina's biggest source of foreign investment, and according to state officials, Japanese companies employ about 30,000 people here. We've got companies like Honda, Toshiba, Hitachi. And in fact, just hours before the Prime Minister flew into Raleigh, one of those companies that already had a presence here, Fujifilm, announced it was adding nearly 700 jobs to expand a pharmaceutical plant. And this visit, it caused a big splash. It was really unusual for North Carolina. The luncheon Friday was the first recorded official visit to the governor's mansion by a foreign head of state. Here's Governor Roy Cooper at that luncheon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROY COOPER: So today we make history welcoming our wonderful friends, Prime Minister Kishida and Mrs. Kishida and all of you to our home.

DETROW: So besides having lunch with the governor, the prime minister did make several stops on Friday around the state. Where did he go?

PRICE: Yeah, he visited some key Japanese companies in particular. Among them was Honda Aircraft, which makes corporate jets. But the big one was Toyota. The giant automaker is building its first factory here - not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world, its first factory for electric vehicle batteries. They're expected to spend about $14 billion on that.

DETROW: There has been so much attention on these electric vehicle factories. It's becoming a big issue in this year's campaign. I mean, $14 billion - this seems like a huge factory.

PRICE: Oh, yeah - more than 5,000 workers eventually. I was just there a few weeks ago, and it's just daunting. I mean, it almost seems to stretch over the horizon. They expect to have it up and running sometime next year.

DETROW: Can you tell us more about the community that the plant is being built in?

PRICE: Yeah, a tiny community named Liberty, almost the dead center of the state. And of course, it's a big deal there and in the surrounding area - huge. It's basically going to double the size of the entire county's tax base, and it's expected to kick off a lot of other growth and attract other companies. Several are already sniffing around there, and this Toyota factory is part of a major wave of battery-makers coming to the Southeast, a battery belt, they're calling it, for EVs.

DETROW: And can you just take a step back and tell us how plants like this, this battery belt, plays into the larger economic competition between the U.S. and China, that the U.S. is really trying to align itself with Japan in?

PRICE: Sure. The prime minister, when he was in Washington, the focus was mostly on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, and China, of course, was the central topic. And in a sense, it's the same thing for economic issues. China's EV industry is growing really, really quickly. It's already the largest producer of EV batteries and EVs in general. So this battery belt and getting these kinds of major companies to build huge battery factories in places like North Carolina and Georgia is a big deal.

DETROW: That's Jay Price with WUNC in Durham, N.C. Jay, thank you so much.

PRICE: Oh, thanks for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.