Attorney appointed liaison between Michigan and sister state in Japan

By John Minnis

Legal News

There was a time when Michigan and Japan were at odds, especially in regards to the auto industry, with little concern for cooperation. Today, Michigan and its sister state, Shiga Prefecture, in Japan are intimately connected--culturally, educationally and economically.

Recognizing the bond between the two states, Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada traveled to Michigan in September to name Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss associate Benjamin J. McCracken as the only attorney among three economic liaisons between Michigan and Shiga Prefecture.

"The economic liaison role is still relatively undefined. It is what we make of it," says McCracken, 33, who speaks fluent Japanese and has traveled to Japan at least once a year since he studied there at the Japanese Center for Michigan Universities in 1998.

Michigan and Shiga have been sister states since Gov. George Romney established the relationship in 1968. Mostly the sister states have shared cultural and educational ties. The Japanese Center for Michigan Universities was formed in 1989 on Lake Biwa in the City of Hikone in Shiga Prefecture.

As a Northern Michigan University student, McCracken desired to travel and learn Japanese. Since NMU did not offer Japanese, McCracken spent a year exclusively learning the language, first at Michigan State University and then in Japan. Today, he serves as president of the Japanese Center for Michigan Universities Alumni Association.

"Jaffe sort of sought me out," says McCracken, explaining how he ended up at the firm after finishing at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 2005. When McCracken mentioned he spoke and wrote Japanese, the Jaffe recruiter responded, "Why do you think we're talking to you?"

Since then, McCracken, as a commercial litigator and Jaffe's lead attorney in all things Japanese, has read "a million" pages in Japanese.

"I don't think a day has gone by since I started at Jaffe," McCracken says, "that I haven't used Japanese."

McCracken traveled to Japan in September and plans to go back in February. On his next trip, he will be visiting many manufacturing plants and businesses in Shiga.

"Gov. Kada wants to make Shiga the 'green capital' of Japan," he says, "a lot like Michigan bringing green companies to the state."

Michigan and Shiga have a lot in common, McCracken says, including manufacturing (Mitsubishi) and Japan's largest inland lake.

In comparison, some 400 Japanese companies have a presence in Michigan, including DENSO and Tokai Rika. Following a trade mission five years ago, Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced that eight Japanese companies agreed to invest $30 million and create more than 150 new jobs in Michigan.

"Michigan is very important to the Japanese economy," McCracken says. "As far as the Japanese auto industry is concerned, it is huge in the Detroit area."

Michigan is so important to Shiga that a prefecture officer lives here full-time. Currently, the prefecture is conducting a three-month project in Michigan.

"That's largely what my role as an attorney and economic liaison will be," McCracken says, "to facilitate these transactions."

Like Michigan, the Shiga Prefecture is not immune to the global economic downturn and the drop in demand for manufactured goods. Also, like Michigan, Shiga is facing undercutting from China.

Shiga has seen back-to-back economic woes. Japan experienced an economic crisis in the 1990s and still has not entirely recovered, McCracken says. Michigan has been in an economic slump for so long that the nation experienced a boom that never reached Michigan.

"Shiga is in the same shape as Michigan," McCracken says. "They're a manufacturing state. They make a perfect sister state."

Even without his appointment as economic liaison to Shiga Prefecture, McCracken would have made his yearly pilgrimage to Land of the Rising Sun.

"Japan gets in your blood or something," he says. "I've gone there at least once a year. It's getting to be twice a year now."

Published: Fri, Dec 17, 2010

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