Ten days ago the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association announced formation of a hall of fame to recognize outstanding contributions to the state’s automotive industry.  First name on the list of this inaugural membership: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

On Wednesday, Alexander was honored with the government of Japan’s “Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star.” The award is a national decoration conferred by the
emperor of Japan. On Friday, Nissan Motor Co. announced the Japanese automaker will add a third shift and more than 800 jobs at a vehicle assembly plant in Tennessee. This is the first time the Tennessee Nissan plant will operate three shifts.  The trio of events, happening just days apart, are even closer in historical context. The first and third announcement would have never happened if not for accomplishments that earned the emperor’s honor. It all hinged on a trip by Alexander to Japan in 1979. The young governor was on a mission to generate jobs for his constituents in Tennessee, the third poorest state in the U.S.

He had his work cut out for him. Japanese automakers built their cars in Japan, always. Their products were known for quality. Why risk a winning formula? But times were changing. Congress was poised to levy restrictions on Japanese products. And
Tennessee’s governor was primed to be America’s point man as Japanese government and industry were under pressure to rectify the trade imbalance.  Could American workers match their Japanese counterparts in quality and efficiency? It was time to find out.

The challenge started with the basics. Nissan President Takashi Ishihara had a question for Alexander: “Where is Tennessee?” Alexander was prepared. He pointed to the center of a satellite photo of the United States. “It’s right in the middle.”  That meant being within 500 miles of three-quarters of the U.S. population. It also meant being separated from the institutionalized U.S. manufacturers in the industrial heartland. Nissan would not follow that model, and Alexander wasn’t pitching it. He was touting Tennessee.

Kato noted the special relationship fostered by the weeks Alexander spent in Japan: “As governor of Tennessee during the height of U.S.-Japan trade tensions, Senator Alexander was a true pioneer in international investment. He saw beyond the supposed
competition between our two countries to the reality that Japanese investment in American states would result in positive growth for both parties.”   

Has it worked? Has it ever. Nissan picked Smyrna to be the site of Japan’s first overseas vehicle manufacturing facility — a $300 million investment in a plant that opened in
1983. The state’s unemployment rate averaged 10.8 percent that year. The 2012 figures put the state rate in September at 8.3 percent. The latest numbers have Blount County unemployment at 6.7 percent. Today more than 170 Japanese firms operate in Tennessee, providing 35,000 jobs. Among those jobs are 3,000 at DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee in Maryville — more than employed by any other company in Blount County. Counting all the jobs related to automobile and parts production — also generated by the General Motors plant in Spring Hill and Volkswagen in Chattanooga — Tennessee credits more than 60,000 jobs to the industry.

The trend started by Alexander in Tennessee has been copied by other Southern states — Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi among those — but none have matched the Volunteer State’s success.  

What about the concern that American workers could not match the quality of their  counterparts overseas? After all, American computer companies claim they have to outsource jobs because American workers just can’t compete with the Chinese.

Hey Apple, take a bite out of this. Just this year, when Nissan wanted to decide where to build a new luxury SUV featuring the Infiniti nameplate, it set up a competition between plants in U.S. and Japan. Team Smyrna came out on top.

It all makes Alexander’s words prophetic. As quoted in his 1986 book, “Friends, Japanese and Tennesseans: A Model of U.S-Japan Cooperation,” the then-governor wrote, “I like to say that tomorrow’s jobs are coming our way because Tennesseans still
hold to yesterday’s values. In this, we’re a lot like the Japanese. Our workers believe in working, and in doing quality work.” 

Congratulations, Lamar, on your honor conferred by the emperor of Japan. You’re certainly deserving as a trailblazing statesman who demonstrated the value of
private/public enterprise and international cooperation.  

And yes, thanks for all those jobs, too.