LINCOLN — Strong trade relations with Japan have helped Nebraska land an important economic development conference.

The state will host the 50th annual meeting of the Midwest U.S.-Japan Association in September 2018, Gov. Dave Heineman announced Wednesday. The conference, attended by hundreds of Japanese business leaders, moves to different cities and was last hosted by Nebraska in the late 1990s.

The conference will give state business leaders an opportunity to grow trade with a nation that already ranks as the fourth-largest overall export market for Nebraska. Japan also is the state's second largest importer of agricultural and livestock products.

Nebraska exported about $566 million in products and commodities to Japan in 2013. Canada, Mexico and China ranked ahead of Japan.

During a press conference, the governor credited the Nebraska trade center in Tokyo, which he opened in 2006, for strengthening business relations with Japan. The state operates a similar center in Shanghai, China. It costs roughly $245,000 annually to run the two centers, an expense that business groups help defray.

Oxbow Animal Health, a 100-employee manufacturer of premium pet food based in Murdock, Nebraska, is one of the business partners that supports the trade center in Japan. Melissa Ross, the company's marketing director, said the center's staff members have helped Oxbow increase export sales to Japan by 92 percent this year.

"When you talk about Asian countries in particular, those relationships are important," Heineman said. "When you invest in an economic development center in their country, they take note and they appreciate it."

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