NEWPORT NEWS, VA. -- Thanks to the hard work and good golf game of Virginia officials, an economic development prize sought by more than 130 localities from Maryland to Georgia opened last week when Canon, the giant Japanese business machine and camera manufacturer, dedicated its first American copier plant.

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles said the ceremony on Friday for "the most advanced copier plant in the world" marked "a new era for Virginia."

"Virginia's insular economy is a thing of the past; and where Virginia's borders once ended with Maryland and North Carolina, they now extend to Beijing and Tokyo, Brussels and Brazil," said Baliles, who left Saturday on a 12-day trip to Britain, Sweden and Denmark, the second of three international trade missions he has scheduled for this year.

Baliles visited China and Japan in April, and he plans to travel to Japan, Korea and Taiwan in October.

Baliles noted that more than 300 Japanese businesses -- including 92 manufacturing plants -- have located in the southeastern United States.

Canon is the first Japanese firm to pick Virginia for a manufacturing facility.

Former governor Charles S. Robb, whose efforts while in office were praised by Baliles and Canon officials as being a key to the selection of this port city by Canon, said Friday that Virginia got a late start in woo- ing Japanese industry but is beginning to catch up.

During Robb's administration, Virginia's Department of Economic Development opened a trade office in Tokyo, and Robb led several trade missions to the Far East, where he found that his skill as a top-rated amateur golfer gave him entree to Japanese business people, whose passion for the game nearly matches their zeal for the international expansion of their businesses.

So it was fitting that the deal that brought the first Japanese factory to Virginia was hatched on a golf course in Williamsburg.

Terry W. Lentz, an international marketing manager for the state's Department of Economic Development who specializes in Far East firms, said he has never encountered such intensity or specificity from a prospect as he has received since the phone call he got two years ago from Canon officials looking for a plant site.

The first wave of Canon executives arrived a week later, and Lentz led them on a quick tour of the state, from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Hampton Roads.

About the same time, Canon officials were examining sites in Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland, and in the Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., areas.

"It was clear Canon had done an awful lot of research," he said. "At first they said the location must be north of I-64 and east of I-95, which made it very difficult."

There were other requirements as well:The site must be in the eastern time zone, so the plant could operate on the same work schedule as Canon U.S.A.'s corporate headquarters in New York.

"They wanted a physically attractive site. They had a dream of a perfect site -- land gently rising away from an interstate," Lentz said.

He said Canon scouts found the perfect parcel, near Anderson, S.C., but, fortunately for Virginia, other conditions -- among them work force and transportation costs -- eliminated that site. The ideal plant site should have a climate similar to that of Tokyo, from which the plant manager and other executives would be transferred. Virginia's climatic data was nearly perfect: The average January temperature in Tokyo is 39, in Richmond it is 37; in July, the average temperature is 76 in Toyko, 77 in Richmond; annual rainfall is 58 inches in Tokyo, 43 inches in Richmond. And -- this was nonnegotiable -- the site must be visible from an interstate. Canon wanted motorists to get a daily reminder of its presence in the community, as a spur to sales of its cameras, copiers and other business equipment.

Fairfax County was eliminated because nothing was available along I-66, Lentz said. Another development official said county and state officials tried to convince Canon that property along Rte. 28 near Dulles International Airport would generate sufficient traffic, but the Japanese insisted "interstate, interstate."

When a visitor at Friday's dedication complained that he arrived late because of a huge traffic jam on I-64, from which the red Canon sign atop the company's building can be seen, a Japanese executive smiled and said, "Yes, the traffic is terrible."

Lentz said the first delegation looked at about 100 sites in Virginia and narrowed down the areas to Hanover County near Richmond and the Peninsula area (Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg). A few days later, a second contingent arrived from Canon U.S.A. in New York and reduced the choices to five. Finally, members of Canon's board flew in from Japan.

For that meeting, Robb flew back from Hawaii to meet with Canon executives in Norfolk.

Still, Canon did not settle on Virginia until Lentz, himself a golfer, suggested that the Canon representatives take a day off and play golf at Kingsmill, a golf-oriented community in Williamsburg.

He invited the then-mayor of Newport News, Joe Ritchie, to join them. During 19th-hole conversation, Ritchie mentioned that the city owned a parcel, a former Nike missile site, that was not on the market but that might be made available.

The next day the site was visited, and shortly after, Canon bought it for $5,000 an acre, which Lentz said was "a good price for Canon that also allowed the city to make money."

Initial employment at the plant, which received more than 16,000 job applications, is about 100, including five Americans trained at a sister plant in Japan and about 20 workers transferred from Japan.

The work force will increase to 150 by the first of the year, and to 400 by the end of 1988, producing 700 to 1,000 dual-color copiers a month.

Laser-beam printers and electronic typewriters may be added later.

Within 10 years, the Newport News plant will be "the largest Canon plant in the world," said Fujio Mitari, president of Canon U.S.A.

By then it will have 1,000 employes, and perhaps it will have as many as 3,000 down the road, said Mitari, whose company has the biggest share of the U.S. copier market.

Shin-ichiro Nagashima, president of Canon Virginia, who previously ran Canon's major copier plant outside Tokyo, liked the golf course at Kingsmill so much that he now lives in Kingsmill, and he occasionally plays a round with Robb and Nagashima's boss, Mitari.

There have been rewards for Robb, too.

His law firm, Hunton & Williams, recently was retained by Canon U.S.A., and Robb has been invited to join Canon's board of directors.

"I think more southern governors play golf now," laughed Robb at a lavish dinner -- decorated with birds in cages, ducks in the fountains and rose petals on the carpeting -- at a Williamsburg hotel after the plant dedication.