Mieko Kikuchi remembers what it was like to come from Japan to the United States.
Kikuchi, Renasant’s Japanese liaison and board member of the Japan-America Society of Mississippi, said she was an active member of her community when she lived in Japan, but needed the help from her friends when she moved to the United States.
âWithout their kindness, I couldn’t have survived, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture,â she said.
Renasant hired Kikuchi, a University of Mississippi graduate and southern aspirant Belle, as a Japanese liaison in the wake of Toyota’s 2007 announcement of plans to build a factory in Blue Springs. Much more than banking, its role is to help Japanese families to adapt professionally and socially to their new southern life.
It acts as a bridge – a bridge of increasing importance over the past decade – between the cultures of northeastern Mississippi and its growing Japanese community.
Census data shows that the Asian population of Lee County has increased by almost 80% since 2010. In Union County, this growth is over 150% and in Lafayette, it is slightly less than 70%. Much of this can be attributed to an increase in the Japanese community over the past decade.
In 2008, the University of Mississippi, along with Japanese companies, established the North Mississippi Japanese Supplementary School. That same year, the Japan-America Society of Mississippi (JASMIS) established its North Mississippi chapter.
Kumi Richardson serves as the Japanese liaison for BancorpSouth and, like Kikuchi, was hired following Toyota’s arrival in the region. She said the arrival of a leading Japanese company in northeast Mississippi opened the doors for a community that would likely not have come to the area otherwise.
âBecause we’re in the South, until now we didn’t have as many Japanese as other states,â Richardson said. âLike in California, there is a Japanese community, for example. But now we have a Japanese community here. This is a good thing.”
For more than a decade, Toyota Mississippi has tried to integrate Japanese culture into the local community, said Emily Lauder, Toyota Mississippi vice president of administration. It started with the support of the local JASMIS chapter and the Japanese supplementary school. In 2013, they partnered with the Gumtree Museum of Art to host Cultural Connections, which featured Japanese creators, art lectures and workshops, and a Japanese art exhibition.
Since then, Toyota’s contributions to the Japanese community in northeastern Mississippi have been numerous: calligraphy classes, Japanese art programs, music, and partnerships with organizations to provide cultural activities. So far, they have donated $ 55,000 to Japanese cultural programs, including the North Mississippi Cherry Blossom Festival and the Tupelo Public School District (TPSD) Cultural Awareness Classes, and are working to showcase the younger, especially underprivileged children, to Japanese art and culture. .
âTupelo is kind of becoming a melting pot because of Toyota and the suppliers and other companies and industries that are here,â said Emily Wilemon-Holland, corporate communications analyst at Toyota North America. “It’s kind of just continued, and built, and it’s growing.”
Make the transition
A crescendo of cultural landmarks followed Toyota’s arrival in northeast Mississippi, including increased Japanese involvement in the annual celebration of cultures; growing cultural awareness in local schools; greater inclusion of Japanese art, music and food in the region; the development of multicultural groups such as Cooking as a First Language; and an increased presence as students in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at the First Baptist Church of Tupelo.
For Japanese Toyota staff, these events and programs are an important part of feeling accepted by the local community and connected to their cultural heritage. Many Japanese workers come to Blue Springs temporarily, usually two to three years, before returning to Japan.
Shoji Asai, whose position is Group Manager, Paint, has been with Toyota Mississippi since February 2020. Originally from Nagoya, he joined Toyota 20 years ago and enjoys life in Mississippi with his wife and three children.
However, the initial transition was a struggle. Asai’s family had just arrived in northeast Mississippi when the growing pandemic forced schools to close. They did not yet have a relationship with her children’s school, and because her children did not speak English well, Asai found herself playing the role of a language teacher while helping them with their lessons.
âOur English sessions are kind of a fight, honestly,â Asai said with a laugh. “It was not that easy, but at that time I used cartoons to teach English to children, through television programs.”
Asai got creative, using her third grade daughter’s homework to help her teach her sixth grade son; using the science book and Google Translate, to help him work on math, which was easy for his son, while concentrating on sentences, which was more difficult for him.
âI tried to explain the mess. What is the meaning of the phrase, what does ‘add’, “Asai joked. “But now they have a good memory, besides being difficult.”
Toyota Tsusho director Shintaro Watanabe experienced a similar struggle when he moved to the United States as a teenager. Like Asai’s family, Watanabe moved to the United States when his parents found work here.
Although Watanabe’s parents eventually returned to Japan, he decided to stay. He attended college and eventually landed a career that took him to Mississippi in 2013. He met his wife, Ryoko Watanabe, Toyota Mississippi Human Resources Business Analyst, and now the couple are on permanent staff at Toyota.
Like her husband, Ryoko Watanabe, who leads Toyota’s efforts to raise awareness of Japanese culture within the Tupelo public school district, has also lived in the United States for more than two decades. Before being hired by Toyota in 2015, she was a TPSD translator.
She sees her current role as helping teachers understand their Japanese students’ adaptation in the United States.
“I am very grateful to have had this opportunity as it is my area of ââpassion, based on my own undergraduate and undergraduate research into how immigrants or temporary residents are affected by cultural adaptation and how their mental health is affected, âWatanabe said.
Shino Sullivan was surprised that northern Mississippi already had a Japanese complementary school when she moved to Oxford in 2011. Prior to that, Sullivan believed that the usual destinations to come to the United States were major cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. The Mississippi was unexpected.
âI didn’t even know there was a Japanese community in Mississippi when I moved here,â she said.
Today, Sullivan is director of UM’s Japanese-American Partnership Program, where the complementary school is offered. Since starting as an instructor in 2011, she has seen the program grow from a few to over 26 participants and move from a classroom on the main UM campus to their own designated space. .
Sullivan is a passionate promoter in his role. To ensure that students maintain their cultural and educational ties, the additional school teaches three subjects according to the guidelines of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
âFor students, it’s a very short time in their life, living in northern Mississippi,â Sullivan said. “I want them to feel that they are not isolated … that they have confidence in themselves as Japanese (person).”
The school follows the calendar of the Japanese school system and runs classes on Saturdays from approximately 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. from April to March. Students learn in Japanese, follow a punctual schedule, and practice Japanese customs.
With 16 families, the program is tight. Instead of separate classrooms, each year is taught in the same building. Because they cover Grades 1 through 9, each of the program’s four tutors teach at least two years. Parents are active, often helping as needed.
âI think they need a community,â Sullivan said. âWe don’t have a big Japanese company, but they really want to connect with other Japanese in the area. “
Richardson, BancorpSouth’s Japanese liaison, has been saying goodbye to her for 13 years. She has seen many families return to Japan. Over the years, the faces change, but the pattern remains the same.
âThe Japanese are here to learn. It’s not just that they’re here visiting, they’re actually living here, âsaid Richardson. âThey know how to appreciate their experiences.
They bring with them their food, their language, their clothing and their culture. Sometimes they bring Japanese costumes for special occasions. With limited oriental grocery options, they learn how to prepare Japanese dishes with American ingredients.
The cultures of the south and of Japan intermingle out of necessity.
âThey adapt, and instead of that ingredient, how about using what’s available here, and then they just experiment,â Richardson said. “Food is (a) fundamental culture of Japan, but by coming here, they learn to do what they love using what is available.”
For Kikuchi, his role as a Japanese liaison is to facilitate the transition from Japan to Mississippi. She helped establish the North Mississippi Cherry Blossom Festival in Tupelo and promotes Japanese culture as a board member of the Gumtree Museum of Art and the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and as a member of the Association Tupelo Suzuki.
She was honored by the Government of Japan for her efforts to bring the cultures of the south and Japan together.
Even after years of living in the United States, Kikuchi remembers what it was like to be a newcomer to this country, far from home and culture, and how much comfort and help she had. need to make this transition.
Now she wants to repay that kindness by helping others on their own journeys from Japan to Mississippi.
âI hope I can share my part with the community, not only for Japanese families but also for (the) American community,â Kikuchi said. “It’s scary if you don’t speak the language, and I think if we can overcome the difference between culture and language, we can make a great friendship.”