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WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 22, 2011)—The record-breaking March 11th earthquake off the coast of Japan caused skyscrapers to sway in Tokyo and tremors across the main island of Honshu, but it was the Tohoku region, in Japan’s northeast, that bore the brunt of nature’s fury. The three Pacific-facing prefectures nearest the epicenter, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima were devastated by the subsequent tsunami that reached up to 6 miles (10 km) inland, sweeping away homes, businesses, and lives in a matter of minutes.

Compared with the political and economic centers of Tokyo and Osaka, many non-Japanese may have been unfamiliar with this region before watching the recent tragic events unfold on the news. Despite the characterization of a quiet agricultural region with sleepy fishing villages, this region contributes substantially to the greater U.S.-Japan relationship.

Data collected for the Japan Matters for America project reveals numerous, close linkages between the United States and the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima. The project, produced in collaboration between the East-West Center in Washington and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, with additional data and analysis provided by the Japan Center for International Exchange, is a comprehensive effort to track Japan’s importance to the United States and vice versa. This project is part of the Asia Matters for America initiative.

Linkages between the Tohoku region and the U.S. revealed by the project’s data include:

  • Trade: According to a 2009 survey, the United States was Fukushima’s largest trade destination, accounting for 17 percent of its total exports. At the same time, over a quarter of the total imports to the Miyagi prefecture (26.2 percent) came from the United States, making it their No. 1 import partner.
  • Foreign Direct Investment: These three prefectures are home to 137 U.S. corporate affiliates. These include branches of such high-tech firms as Cisco Systems and Hewlett Packard.
  • American Residents: More Americans live in Japan than ever before, with the numbers rising in each prefecture. Tohoku is no exception, with over a thousand American residents living in Iwate (187), Miyagi (541), and Fukushima (339) in 2009.
  • Sister Cities: Twenty-six communities in these three prefectures have formal sister relationships with communities in 15 U.S. states. Additionally, the Port of Everett in Washington State maintains a longstanding exchange relationship with the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi.

Crossed with mountains and bordered by the Pacific Ocean, these three prefectures were traditionally considered, along with the rest of the Tohoku region, to be a rural backwater. Today, linked by bullet trains and expressways, they are famous agricultural areas and tourist destinations. Much of the population consists of famers - many of them elderly, since today the average age among farmers in Japan’s aging society is around 65.

Together, they are three unique prefectures that each enrich the US-Japan partnership in their own way:

  • Fukushima is the gateway connecting Tohoku with Tokyo. Electricity generation is a major industry, and the now-beleaguered nuclear complexes are among the largest in Japan.
  • Miyagi is home to Sendai, the largest city in the region with a population of 1.03 million, and a regional center of manufacturing, as well as transportation and commerce through its large port. Miyagi is particularly noted for its high-quality rice production and fisheries.
  • Iwate, conversely, is rugged and sparsely populated. With forests covering 75 percent of the prefecture, forestry is a major industry while its natural beauty has been a draw for tourism.

The U.S.-Japan relationship extends beyond the Tokaido; the prominent region from the Tokyo metropolis to Osaka. As the United States joins the international effort to aid Japan in its time of need, it is important to understand the deep and direct connections between our country and the stricken Tohoku region.

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The East-West Wire is a news, commentary, and analysis service provided by the East-West Center in Honolulu. Any part or all of the Wire content may be used by media with attribution to the East-West Center or the person quoted.