Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"I Wanted Oregon to Have Something": Governor Victor G. Atiyeh and Oregon-Japan Relations

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"I Wanted Oregon to Have Something": Governor Victor G. Atiyeh and Oregon-Japan Relations

Article excerpt

HISTORIANS AND JOURNALISTS have generally judged Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield and Governors Tom McCall and Robert Straub as Oregon's most significant post--World War II politicians. Yet Victor G. "Vic" Atiyeh, Republican governor of Oregon from 1979 to 1987, was also a crucial figure during that era. (1) In particular, his administration's efforts to expand the relationship between Oregon and Japan are worthy of historical analysis. Atiyeh's work to increase Oregon's international trade has long been a source of either admiration or contention from the press, fellow politicians, and the public. During his tenure as governor, Atiyeh went on twenty trade missions overall, including nine to Asia. These trips built relationships with Asian business and political leaders that helped lead to an increase in Oregon exports from $2.4 billion in 1978 to $18 billion in 2011. (2) Former Atiyeh staffer and current Second Congressional District Representative Greg Walden credited his one-time boss with setting Oregon on the path toward more robust international trade. "He helped create a whole new economy," Walden told the Oregonian. "He dug the ditches and he poured the foundations for what really developed, especially in the Portland metro area and the high-tech growth that occurred there." (3)

This article goes beyond those familiar career highlights by analyzing how Atiyeh expanded Oregon's presence in the Pacific Rim, particularly with regard to Japan, which has been among the state's biggest trading partners. Atiyeh sought to make personal connections and use political power to generate new exports. Thanks largely to Atiyeh, in 1984 Oregon established a trade office in Tokyo to assist exporters in relationships with prospective Japanese customers and to help expedite future Japanese investment in Oregon. Perhaps even more crucially, and in divergence from Oregon's traditional approach to international trade, Atiyeh worked to attract foreign, direct investment into the state. His success in this regard peaked in 1984, when Japanese companies Epson, Fujitsu, and Nippon Electric (NEC) agreed to build high-technology manufacturing plants in the northern Willamette Valley. Another major success story of Oregon-Japanese relations that year was the debut on Japan's Fuji TV of From Oregon With Love, a television movie about a fictional Japanese family living in central Oregon that did well enough to spawn spinoffs into the 1990s.

Atiyeh's archival collections at Pacific University, contemporary and retrospective press accounts, and oral histories show that the governor played a significant, if not solitary, role in the historical reorientation of Oregon's relationship with Japan. Beyond merely attempting to entice Japan to buy Oregon exports, during the Atiyeh years, public and private officials also solicited investment by Japanese businesses in Oregon. Atiyeh's gains have proven difficult to maintain, however, and his blueprint of economic diversification has not completely transformed Oregon's economy over the long term. Many of the high-tech manufacturers that Atiyeh lured to Oregon have left the state, while timber, agriculture, and tourism remain paramount to its economic health. Nevertheless, the legacy of Atiyeh's work to expand the contours of Oregon's traditional economy has persisted.

MOST OBSERVERS of Oregon's post--World War II history have depicted its successes and struggles as a primarily Oregon story, only sparingly discussing the state's relationship to the wider world. Some historians have argued that Oregon's lack of military bases and prime defense contracts, in contrast to its West Coast neighbors, hampered its economic growth, while others have pointed to Oregon's long-term over-reliance on the timber industry. (4) Since the collapse of timber, which began during Atiyeh's term in office, newer economic narratives have emphasized the development of other, mainly urban, industries. …

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