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North Carolina welcomes a historic visitor in Japan's Prime Minister Kishida

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cemented economic links and cultural amity with North Carolina on Friday, following up time in Washington during his official U.S. visit by checking up on benchmark Japanese companies building in the ninth-most populous state and meeting with students.

In between, Kishida lunched at the governor’s mansion in Raleigh, a historic first for the head of a foreign country in the Tar Heel state. Japan is North Carolina’s largest source of foreign direct investment, where over 200 Japanese companies have now set up shop, employing over 30,000 people, according to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his office.

“I am honored to be here in North Carolina to showcase the multilayered and strong ties between Japan and the United States,” Kishida said through a translator, inside the mansion ballroom, where about 60 people listened. The guest list included Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein, Republican state House Speaker Tim Moore and executives of several Japanese and American companies in the region.

He called North Carolina “a state at the forefront of the times” and flexed his knowledge about its landmarks, mentioning Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers had their first successful flight, as an example of the state's ingenuity.

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Until now, Kishida's trip to the U.S. had been focused on global safety. He met President Joe Biden to discuss security concerns about China’s military, participated in the first trilateral summit between the U.S., Japan and the Philippines, and made the case in an address to a joint session of Congress for the U.S. to remain involved in global security.

But Kishida, who has been Japan’s prime minister since 2021, said before his trip that he chose to stop in North Carolina to show that the Japan-U.S. partnership extends beyond Washington, according to a translation posted on his website.

Kishida, Cooper and others traveled to the Greensboro area for Friday morning visits to a Honda Aircraft Co. production facility, as well as to the construction site for a Toyota Motor Corp. electric and hybrid battery plant that is expected to ultimately employ more than 5,000 people.

Hours before Kishida and his wife arrived Thursday night at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a subsidiary of another Japanese company, Fujifilm, announced an additional $1.2 billion investment in its upcoming biopharmaceutical manufacturing plant and another 680 jobs.

Chiaki Takagi, a Japanese studies lecturer at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, said this week that the prime minister's visit surprised her but that it could signal a “positive future partnership” between Japan and the U.S. and more Japanese workers coming to the state.

“This whole thing will provide the area with opportunities to be engaged in very active cultural exchange between Japan and the U.S.,” Takagi said.

The luncheon marked the first time a foreign head of state has visited the governor's mansion since record-keeping began in 1891, the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said.

“What a better way to start than with one of our closest allies and friends from the country of Japan, with whom we share so many common interests,” Cooper said at the luncheon. “So today we make history, welcoming our wonderful friends.”

Cooper has a history of visiting Japan, making two trips to Tokyo in 2017 and 2023 during his time as governor. When it was announced Kishida was coming to the U.S., Rahm Emanuel, U.S. ambassador to Japan, said during the luncheon Cooper was the first to call to ask for the prime minister to visit his state.

Guests dined on a three-course meal prepared by James Beard award-winning Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen, which included wagyu beef tenderloin and Carolina Gold Rice pudding. Meanwhile, additional members of the Japanese delegation and the governor's staff listened to live bluegrass music as they ate barbeque.

Kishida, Cooper and others went to North Carolina State University in Raleigh later Friday, where they met students ranging from those in middle school to adults studying Japanese. They visited the university's Japan Center, which was established by former Gov. Jim Hunt and others in 1980 following a state trade mission to Tokyo. North Carolina State also has long, formal ties with Japan's Nagoya University.

Earlier Friday, Kishida's wife, Yuko, and North Carolina first lady Kristin Cooper shared a traditional Japanese tea at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham.

___

Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh contributed to this report.

Makiya Seminera, The Associated Press