"When they opened, Toyota needed 300 people. They got 25,000 applications. That really amazed them. They started adding on more and more people."
Rockefeller believes the time he spent in Japan made his thinking more creative.
"When I was governor, we went to Nagoya when we wanted to move a West Virginia office to Japan.
"We researched to find which had been the most bombed-out city in Japan during the Second World War. It was Nagoya. They made everything there -- armaments, everything," he said.
"They had incredible engineers. Their factories never won architectural prizes. They were just walls that enclosed space where a lot of amazing things happened.
"They were thrilled when we picked Nagoya. No other American state had done that. They all had offices in Tokyo. We got free office space for a while. We began to meet a lot of Japanese business people and we began to go on many, many trade missions over there."
Today, Japanese companies in West Virginia make a variety of automobile parts, including spark plugs and oxygen sensors, as well as various metal products, including steel coatings.
West Virginia's political leaders, past and present, credit Rockefeller with creating the profitable relationship the state enjoys today with Japan.
"Many people worked on these projects, but he was certainly captain of the team," former governor Gaston Caperton said. "The Japanese so respected him and the fact he got a part of his education in their country.
"We would not have the Toyota plant, and a lot of the other plants, without the leadership of Jay Rockefeller," Caperton said.
Tom Heywood, a Charleston lawyer who was Caperton's chief of staff from 1989 to 1993, said, "It is impossible to overstate the significance of his role and his stature in attracting Japanese investment to West Virginia.
"I traveled to Asia with Rockefeller a couple of times and I saw firsthand the respect he enjoys in Japan and his deep personal relationships with Japanese political and business leaders," said.
Heywood is now managing partner at Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said of Rockefeller, "His efforts are the foundation upon which our state has continued to foster valuable business relationships with Japanese companies."
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "Sen. Rockefeller long ago set his sights on using his considerable background and continuing ties to promote our state abroad as a prime site for new and expanded business.
"Jay's patient persistence, his ability to bring people together and to keep them working together has paid off handsomely for our number one goal, jobs. With many Toyota employees in the 3rd Congressional District, I can attest that Jay's crowning achievement has produced some great results for our state and people," Rahall said.
Last spring, that crowning achievement -- the Toyota plant in Buffalo -- marked the 10 millionth engine to come off its assembly lines. The plant had 1,300 workers at that point, with another expansion on the horizon.
The special guests for the event were Rockefeller and Toyoda, the retired chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation -- himself a recipient of the honor.
"I spent a lot of time with him. Sometimes, it is difficult to get to know Japanese people," Rockefeller said. "But when you got to know him, he was a friend for life."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.