Thousands of motorists who whiz past the Yamato Road exit on I-95 probably have no idea why a major Palm Beach County street has a Japanese name.
The road takes its name from the Yamato Colony, a group of Japanese farmers who settled in what is now Boca Raton early in the 19th century with the goal of introducing new crops and agricultural techniques to Florida.
While ultimately the farming community didn’t flourish, the Florida-Japan connection has endured. Last week, not far from where the original Japanese colony was planted, business, cultural and academic leaders came together for the 11th Annual Florida-Japan Summit.
Florida and Japan have had “a steady, stable, mutually beneficial relationship over the decades,’’ said Shinji Nagashima, Japanese consul general in Miami.
In fact, he said, two Japanese landscapers — Kataro Suto and Shigezo Tashiro — played a key but little-known role in the development of Miami Beach.
Nagashima is proud of their part in Miami Beach’s history. “Miami Beach represents everything American — it’s a symbol of American culture,’’ he said.
Suto and Tashiro moved to Florida in 1916 and worked with developer Carl Fisher, who turned a swampy barrier island into a resort city. They planted palms, flowers and lawns on the reclaimed soil. Sometimes Suto surprised Miami Beach residents by planting flowers at their homes while they were at work, said Nagashima.
When World War II came and large numbers of Japanese were sent to U.S. internment camps, Suto’s house was also raided. Unredeemed Liberty Bonds, a copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and other patriotic materials were found, said Nagashima, adding that Suto was allowed to stay in his home — albeit with some restrictions.
By the time World War II began, many of the original Yamato pioneers had returned to Japan and only four households remained. One of them was the home of George Sukeji Morikami, who in the 1970s donated 200 acres of land to Palm Beach County to benefit the people of his adopted country and honor the memory of the Yamato Colony.
That Delray Beach land is now the site of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens.
This past week Morikami hosted the Florida-Japan Summit. It was organized by the Florida delegation of the Southeast U.S./Japan Association, which seeks to develop business, education, tourism and cultural ties between six southeastern states and Japan.
Japan was Florida’s sixth largest trading partner with $6.88 billion in merchandise trade in 2013. The Jacksonville-Tampa Customs District accounts for much of that commerce because Jacksonville is a major importing and exporting center for Japanese-made cars.
Through the first three months of this year, Japanese trade with the Jacksonville-Tampa district was $1.4 billion, making it the district’s top trading partner.
Last year, Japan came in 31st among South Florida’s trading partners with $1.1 billion in commerce. The Miami Customs District’s exports to Japan rose 14.22 percent to $320.4 million while imports were down 8.14 percent to $775.1 million, according to an analysis by WorldCity, a media and data research company.
Japanese companies also created 21,900 Florida jobs in 2011, ranking Japan fourth among direct foreign investors, according to Enterprise Florida.
But only around 270,000 Japanese visitors made their way to the Sunshine State last year — at a time when the state is trying to bring 100 million visitors to Florida annually, said Griff Salmon, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Enterprise Florida.
One of the factors hurting Japanese tourism to Florida is lack of direct air service.
Salmon, who spoke at the summit, said that Florida’s 825 miles of beaches is “not a bad thing to be known for, but people should begin to realize that business and tourism go hand in hand.”
While Florida would like to increase its number of Japanese tourists, Japan would also like to increase its international visitors.
After 20 years of economic stagnation, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is emphasizing growth.
That new growth strategy includes doubling foreign direct investment by 2020, economic growth of 2.5 percent by 2015 — and increasing tourism, said Keiichi Kimura, chief executive director of the Atlanta office of JETRO, the Japanese External Trade Organization.
Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, which are expected to boost the economy and could create 150,000 jobs, said Kimura.
Japan has set an ambitious goal of increasing inbound visitors from 10 million to 30 million over the next 10 years, said Tadayuki Hara, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
But Hara pointed out that the target comes at a time when the Japanese population is shrinking. From 2010 to 2050, he said, the population is projected to decline from 127 million to 90 million-100 million.
“We all know tourism is a very labor-intensive industry,’’ said Hara.
Labor shortages could put a crimp in Japan’s tourism development plans, he said, but they also could create strategic business opportunities for Florida.
“Do they need help? I think so,” said Hara. “There are a lot of things the Japanese can learn from the knowledge you have here.”
Japan, for example, has no tourism development tax, as Florida does. But recently, he said, there have been conversations in Japan about instituting such a tax.
While 46 Japanese universities offer tourism studies, Hara said not one offers a program in hospitality management — an area where Florida excels.
Japan also is in the process of expanding educational exchanges with the world.
By 2020, it wants to increase the number of Japanese students studying abroad from 60,000 to 120,000 — and to boost the number of foreign students studying in Japan from 140,000 to 300,000.
Last month after President Barack Obama made the first state visit to Japan by a U.S. president in 18 years, he and Abe announced they were creating a new bilateral exchange program that would enable Japanese young people to visit the United States, enhance their English skills and develop their professional abilities through participating in internship programs.
The two leaders also said they would explore internship opportunities for American youth in Japan.
Such people-to-people exchanges, the leaders said in a joint statement, are “an irreplaceable investment in the future of the alliance” between the United States and Japan.
Abe and Obama also discussed Japan’s role in efforts to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a free trade pact under negotiation between 12 Asia/Pacific nations, including the United States, Japan, Canada, Mexico — but did not make any breakthroughs.
In a statement, they said they had “identified a path forward on important bilateral TPP issues,” but they added, “there is still much work to be done to conclude TPP.”
Still, Hideaki Mizukoshi, head of Chancery at the Japanese Embassy in Washington and a keynote speaker at the Florida-Japan Summit, said, “I think the visit was very successful. I hope the relationship between Florida and Japan will build on the positive results of President Obama’s trip.”