Japan interested in Alaska's natural gas, tourism, official says

PHOTO/Rob Stapleton/AJOC
trade.jpg Alaska’s relationship with Japan, the state’s largest trading partner, holds much promise for the future, but also some areas of concern.

Consul-General Yoshinori Tsujimoto of Japan offered that assessment Jan. 10 at an international forum of the World Trade Center Alaska. Tsujimoto, who is completing three years as Japan’s consul-general in Alaska, said the state’s natural resources continue to offer important trade opportunities, but maximizing those opportunities will require mutual trust and understanding.

Japan is now coming out of an economic tailspin it entered during the 1990s, particularly in its financial and construction industries. Looking ahead to 2010, Tsujimoto said Japan faces serious challenges, including a slowly recovering economy, a rapidly aging society and a declining population. In 2015, for example, 25 percent of Japan’s population will be 65 or older. That compares with only 12 percent of the U.S. population entering that age group that year.

For Japan to resume growing at a projected 2 percent average annual rate, most economists say there is no quick fix. Instead, the country must use technology and deregulation to enhance its competitiveness and increase productivity, Tsujimoto said.

"In much the same way, Alaska must become proactive in promoting its economic growth," he observed.

The existing Japan-Alaska trade relationship cannot be taken for granted, the consul-general explained. Japan is Alaska’s largest trading partner, purchasing 51 percent of the state’s exports. But Alaska products represent only 0.4 percent of Japan’s overall imports, which means Alaska is one of many trade options for Japan, he said.

Alaska’s large trade sectors of seafood and timber appear to be losing ground for various reasons, including competition from farm-raised fish and regulations that restrict or prohibit harvesting. Alaska’s energy, minerals and tourism sectors, however, have potential for significant growth, Tsujimoto said.

Japan needs to reduce its 87 percent dependence on Middle East crude oil imports, and natural gas could be substituted as a cleaner, more efficient energy source, Tsujimoto said.

"Developing Alaska natural gas is important to Japan," he said. He noted that an international consortium is now working on a trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline project that would export gas as liquefied natural gas, and a Japanese trading company is a member of that consortium.

Tsujimoto also said the route following the Alaska Highway that Gov. Tony Knowles recently endorsed for construction of a gas pipeline to ship raw gas to the Lower 48 "doesn’t seem to conflict" with the consortium’s plans to market Alaska gas as liquefied natural gas in Asia.

That’s because a spur could be built to transport natural gas to Valdez or Nikiski, where it would be converted into LNG and exported to Asia.

"In 2010, if Alaska natural gas is to be exported to Japan, it could have nothing but a positive effect on the Japan-Alaska relationship," Tsujimoto said.

In hard-rock mining, Tsujimoto said Sumitomo Ltd. has invested in the Pogo gold mine southeast of Fairbanks. "The success of Pogo could encourage additional mineral development in Alaska," he said.

Tourism also should continue to flourish because "Alaska’s beautiful wildlife and landscapes are fascinating to the Japanese people," Tsujimoto said. "Direct flights between Anchorage and Japan will play a key role in making Japan-Alaska tourism flourish," he said. "Direct flights could double existing numbers of visitors by 2010."

Because interpersonal relationships are a fundamental part of Japanese society, Japan-Alaska trade can flourish only if ongoing cultural interaction between members of both communities are nurtured.

Toward that end, the Consulate General of Japan announced the formation of the Japan-American Society of Alaska in November 2000. The society is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established to improve communications and enhance commercial, educational and cultural relations between Japan and Alaska.

01/27/2001 - 8:00pm