When Honda came calling

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Pictured above are Marysville Journal-Tribune news clippings detailing the events leading up to Honda’s announcement that it would locate a manufacturing facility in Union County 40 years ago. What started as a motorcycle plant quickly blossomed into additional production facilities, shaping the economy of Union and other area counties.
(Journal-Tribune photo by Kevin Behrens)
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Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from “Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America” by Andrew C. McKevitt. The author interviewed local residents and used Journal-Tribune photos and articles to tell the story of Honda’s arrival in Marysville and how it changed American production and culture. The book includes multiple excerpts and photos from, as well as citations of, the Journal-Tribune.
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40 years ago manufacturer dropped into county’s lap
Honda’s arrival in Marysville, road to Pulitzer prize-winning industrial journalist Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White, marked the ‘Watershed event that precipitated Detroit crisis and ultimately its revival… It was the Japanese, ironically, who showed that American workers could build quality automobiles, and thus stripped away Detroit’s excuses.’ Ingrassia and White described the scramble in the late 1980s to adopt “Japanese-style” management techniques in the Big Three plants (and their efforts to hire away Executives from Honda) and argued that the U.S. management class’s eager adoption of such styles saved the industry, improving the quality and experience of working for GM, Ford, and Chrysler. While Detroit executives would “relapse” into bad habits a decade later, greedy in the wake of Japanese economic crisis of the 1990s, Honda’s commitment to Ohio grew, and more generally Japan’s transnational presence in the United States, driven by Americans’ insatiable desire for Japanese things, continued to connect local spaces to global flows. It all started in Marysville.
In October 1977 the Honda Motor Company of Japan announced its intention to build a motorcycle assembly plant six miles northwest of Marysville, the largest municipality and county seat of rural Union County. The local newspaper, the Marysville Journal-Tribune, noted and auspicious coincidence: “’Ohio’ in Japanese means ‘Good Morning,’ and that’s what it was for residents of Union County and central Ohio” on the day of Honda’s announcement. Everyone in Union County was taken aback by the announcement. The mayor and the county commissioners had never spoken with Honda’s people. Two months before the public announcement, James Duerk, an economic development assistant to longtime Ohio governor Jim Rhodes, dropped into Marysville to inform the local leadership of the arrangement his boss had already made. Duerk brought with him a twelve-point agreement that Rhodes had negotiated with Honda’s top management. The document laid out the various commitment roads had made — some of them on behalf of Marysville and Union County — to invest millions of state and local dollars in infrastructural improvements and to offer generous tax abatements. Rhodes sold Honda on the location because of its proximity to the Transportation Research Center, a several-thousand acre compound on U.S. Route 33 built earlier in the decade to lower the Big Three down to rural central Ohio for research and development. In the wake of Detroit’s post-1973 downturn, the research center sat vacant.
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In the context of persistent anxiety about Japan, the residents of Marysville welcomed a Japanese company to their town as a salve for the wounds of economic recession. The consequences likely exceeded the most optimistic expectations. The fears … proved partly valid — this Japanese company did, indeed, do things better than its U.S. competitors — but the future that Detroit foresaw unfolded not half a planet away in Tokyo but fewer than 200 miles south in central Ohio. The case of Honda’s arrival in Marysville illustrates that the globalizing of Japanese capital and culture worked not only to the benefit of a particular nation-state but also to the benefit of those local communities that connected to Global transformations taking place largely independent of the borders of the nation-state. Honda brought thousands of jobs to central Ohio while linking the local community to global commerce and culture in ways much of the rest of the country would notice in the coming decades. The Japanese company spoke not the language of national, racial, or ethnic communities but of transnational corporate communities. When the defenders of the old post-war industrial order, the representatives of the UAW, presented their grievances to the Marysville community, they seemed petty, bitter, and vestigial compared to what Marysville had already tasted and to what Honda’s future promised.
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Over that nine years following Rhodes’s and Honda’s announcements, the company invested nearly $600 million in Union County as it constructed first a motorcycle assembly plant and then a much larger automobile assembly plant; by 1986 it had expanded the auto plant and built a third facility, the Anna engine plant, about an hour’s drive west of Marysville. In 1989 it would add another massive assembly facility in East Liberty, in Logan County, adjacent to northwest Union County. The centerpiece, the Marysville Auto Plant (MAP), would be the first auto production facility in the United States owned and operated by Japanese company when it opened in 1982. Anticipating the theme of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign, Honda’s arrival in Marysville signaled a social and economic renaissance for a rust belt community — it was “morning again” in Marysville, courtesy of the Land of the Rising Sun.
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The opening of the Marysville Motorcycle Plant (MMC) in September 1979 coincided with the beginning of hard times to come for the community. Unemployment rates for Union County hovered near 6 percent throughout 1979; the jobs at the MMP provided to the “Original 64” employees hardly dented that figure in a county with a labor force of 13,000. Stagnant economic growth, particularly in the industrial Midwest, combined with rising consumer prices under the Carter administration’s watch to put strains on everyday life in Marysville as a new decade dawned.
But the “worst hard time” was yet to come. Unemployment in central Ohio climbed dramatically during the “Reagan recession” of 1981-83, reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression. The 1982 average rate for Union County was 12.3 percent, reaching 14.5 percent as the MAP opened its doors in November 1982; just three months later, the rate was close to 16 percent. Neighboring counties, from which Honda would also draw workers, had it equally rough – Logan and Champaign counties had 1982 unemployment rates of 12.5 and 12.7 percent respectively, while Marion County, to Union’s north, 16.9 percent of the workforce was jobless in 1982.
From a devastating low in 1982, however, Marysville would reach spectacular highs in the decade following the MAP’s opening, exceeding both the company’s and the community’s expectations. During the recession, Union County’s unemployment regularly rated as one of the dozen worst of Ohio’s 88 counties — in a state, no less, that monthly ranked only behind Michigan for the nation’s worst jobless rates. Yet by April 1986 Union County’s rate of 4.4 percent was the lowest in all of Ohio, and the occasion was the first in nearly two years that the rate in any Ohio county dipped below 5 percent. By 1988 the county’s average annual income of $27,000 had passed every other county in the state, and Honda’s annual tax bill exceeded $500 million, two-thirds of which went to local school districts. By 1992 Honda had invested $2.4 billion in several production and assembly facilities in central Ohio, where it employs more than 10,000 people — not one of whom, the company liked to boast, Honda had ever laid off, even when it cut production to account for economic slowdowns.
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Honda’s arrival altered social and cultural life for the Marysville community as much as it dramatically transformed the economic landscape of central Ohio, illustrating the impact beyond economics that Global Commerce and culture could have on local U.S. communities. For Honda’s new “associates,” as the company called all of its production employees, Honda promoted a “Japanese-style” work ethic that tried to transcend the divisions between labor and management in order to invest everyone in Honda “equality” and “pride.” Consequently Marysville evolved into more than a simple space of production; it’s very identity merged with Hondas. Local residence not employed by Honda noticed the change in their Community as well. Hundreds of new Japanese resident brought a touch of ethnic and cultural diversity in an area populated almost exclusively by white faces.
The singularly impressive growth of the area would come only after the MAP opened its doors, but the Marysville Community still warmly greeted the opening of the MAP and the hundreds of jobs it promised, witnessing small changes from the influx of global capital and commerce.



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