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June 24, 2017

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In Mexico, auto boom fuels Japanese culture mix

CELAYA, Mexico--Celaya, an industrial city in the heart of Mexico, now has a Japanese language class where the teacher uses honorifics, addressing her students as "Felipe-san" or "Christian-san."

Across town, a hotel installed a special satellite dish on its rooftop to capture a Japanese TV channel while receptionists greet visitors by saying "konnichiwa" ("hello").

A central road is named Mexico-Japan Avenue, and at the city's entrance a giant billboard reads, "Celaya is a good choice. Welcome Honda."

The sign might as well have been: Welcome, Japan.

Celaya and other cities in Mexico's Guanajuato state are greeting with open arms the arrival of Japanese car makers Honda and Mazda, dozens of parts suppliers and legions of expats.

"It is changing the face of Celaya," Fernando Vera Noble, director of the city's economic development department, told AFP in his office in a glass tower building, on the same floor as a Honda subsidiary.

Guanajuato is becoming a major hub for the growing number of foreign car makers that are flocking to Mexico for its relatively low wages, proximity to the massive U.S. market and free trade deals with numerous nations.

Mexico is now the eighth biggest car producer in the world and the fourth exporter. Guanajuato stands out as a prime destination for Japanese firms.

Japan is Guanajuato's biggest investor, pouring US$4 billion into the state and creating 25,000 jobs in the past seven years, helping to fuel a rising middle class by paying the highest manufacturing wages, according to official figures.

"The Japanese company boom was sparked in 2011 with the Honda and Mazda announcements," said Hector Lopez Santillana, the Guanajuato state secretary for economic development.

On Feb. 21, President Enrique Pena Nieto inaugurated the US$800 million Honda factory in Celaya, a city of half a million people. The company is also building a US$470 million transmissions plant.

A week later, he returned to Guanajuato to launch Mazda's US$770 million factory in Salamanca, a half-hour drive west of Celaya.

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