COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina taxpayers spent about $54,000 on an international trade meeting in Japan led by Gov. Nikki Haley, Commerce officials said Thursday.

That’s the initial estimate of tax dollars spent on the six-day economic development trip to Tokyo, mostly for travel, hotel rooms and fees for the 35th annual conference of the Japan-U.S. Southeast Association.

Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt called it money well spent, saying the trip was vital to building the relationships needed to bring jobs to South Carolina. The state is hoping to capitalize on Japanese companies’ desire to diversify following last year’s earthquake-tsunami crisis, which shut down most of the country’s nuclear reactors and left the country more reliant on imports to supply electricity.

Japanese-based companies already rank second in foreign investment in South Carolina, behind Germany, according to Commerce.

“We’re doing what any good sales organization does. We’re going where the customers are,” Hitt said.

He said state officials participated in 23 meetings with company executives. The agency declined to name specific companies, citing confidentiality.

But officials noted their pitches involved companies already in the state that could expand.

“Whether they were meeting with businesses — like Honda, Fuji or Showa Denko — that already call South Carolina home or meeting with new prospects, they had a great story to tell about South Carolina,” Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said.

About 40 people made the trip from South Carolina, including Haley, her husband, an aide and her security. Four Commerce employees flew over, joining three part-time, Japanese-speaking consultants there, including the former director of South Carolina’s now-shuttered Japanese office. It was closed amid recession-era budget cuts.

Others in South Carolina’s delegation included members of local economic development offices, colleges and companies.

Haley was among five Southeastern governors at the conference. Her itinerary included being keynote speaker of the monthly luncheon of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Her spokesman has said Michael Haley would pay his own travel.

Of the 350 people attending the annual conference Sept. 13-15, 250 came from the seven Southeastern member states. Meetings were lined up for several days before the conference.

“Everybody was doing the same thing. We’re in competition with our neighbors to win some of this business from Japan,” Hitt said.

A South Carolina governor has not attended since 2003, when former Gov. Mark Sanford traveled to Osaka, Japan. The meetings’ location rotates between Japan and the Southeast. South Carolina last hosted the conference in 2002 in Charleston and is scheduled to host again in 2017.