BLENDING CULTURES. This September 28, 2021 photo shows
Kumi Richardson, Japanese liaison and premier banking
specialist/personal banker at BancorpSouth in Tupelo, Mississippi. Since
entering her role in 2008, she’s watched as the Japanese community in
Northeast Mississippi has developed and grown, and helped several
families navigate their own adjustment to southern culture. (Thomas
Wells/Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP)
This September 27, 2021 photo shows Shiho Seki, left, and Yuri
Wakamori looking at pictures of the fall season while taking part in an
ESL (English as a Second Language) class at First Baptist Church in
Tupelo, Mississippi. While the class is open to all cultures and has
students from a variety of backgrounds, the program received an influx
of Japanese students following the announcement of Toyota Mississippi
opening a Blue Springs facility in 2007. (Thomas Wells/Northeast
Mississippi Daily Journal via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V31, #11 (November 1, 2021), pages 8
Japanese, southern cultures blend in northeast
By Danny McArthur
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Mieko Kikuchi remembers what it was like coming
to the United States from Japan.
Kikuchi, a Japanese liaison for Renasant and a member of
Japan-America Society of Mississippi’s board of directors, said she was
an active member of her community when she lived in Japan, but she
needed help from her friends when she moved to the U.S.
"Without their kindness, I couldn’t have survived, not knowing the
language, not knowing the culture," she said.
Renasant hired Kikuchi, a University of Mississippi graduate and
aspiring southern belle, as their Japanese liaison following the 2007
announcement of Toyota’s plans to construct a plant in Blue Springs.
Much more than banking, her role is to help Japanese families adjust to
their new southern lives, professionally and socially.
She acts as a bridge — one of increasing importance in the past
decade — between the cultures of Northeast Mississippi and its growing
Census data show Lee County’s Asian population having increased by
nearly 80% since 2010. In Union County, that growth is more than 150%,
and in Lafayette, it’s just under 70%. Much of that can be attributed to
a surge in the Japanese community over the past decade.
In 2008, the University of Mississippi, alongside Japanese companies,
established the North Mississippi Japanese Supplementary School. That
same year, the Japan-America Society of Mississippi (JASMIS) created its
North Mississippi chapter.
Kumi Richardson serves as the Japanese liaison for BancorpSouth and,
like Kikuchi, was hired in the wake of Toyota’s arrival in the area. She
said the arrival of a prominent Japanese company in Northeast
Mississippi opened the doors to a community that likely wouldn’t have
come to the area otherwise.
"Because we are in the South, until now, we didn’t have as many
Japanese people as other states," Richardson said. "Like in California,
there is a Japanese community, for example. But now we have a Japanese
community here. That’s a good thing."
For over a decade, Toyota Mississippi has tried to integrate Japanese
culture into the local community, said Emily Lauder, vice president of
administration for Toyota Mississippi. That started with supporting the
local chapter of JASMIS and the Japanese Supplementary School. In 2013,
they partnered with the Gumtree Museum of Art to host Cultural
Connections, which presented Japanese creators, art lectures and
workshops, and an exhibit of Japanese art.
Since then, Toyota’s contributions to Northeast Mississippi’s
Japanese community have been numerous: calligraphy classes, Japanese art
programs, music, and partnering with organizations to offer cultural
activities. They’ve donated $55,000 to Japanese cultural programs so
far, including the North Mississippi Cherry Blossom Festival, and Tupelo
Public School District (TPSD) cultural awareness classes, and work to
expose younger kids, especially under-resourced kids, to Japanese art
"Tupelo’s becoming somewhat of a melting pot because of Toyota and
because of the suppliers and other businesses and industries that are
located here," said Emily Wilemon-Holland, corporate communications
analyst at Toyota North America. "It’s kind of just continued, and
built, and it’s growing."
Making the transition
A crescendo of cultural touchstones followed Toyota’s arrival in
Northeast Mississippi, including a strengthened Japanese involvement in
the annual Celebration of Cultures; growth in 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 increased presence as students at First Baptist
Church of Tupelo’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program.
For Toyota’s Japanese staff, these events and programs are an
important part of feeling accepted by the local community as well as
connected to their cultural heritage. Many of the Japanese workers come
to Blue Springs temporarily, typically 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 is enjoying life in Mississippi with his
wife and three kids.
However, the initial transition was a struggle. Asai’s family had
just arrived in Northeast Mississippi when the growing pandemic forced
schools to shut down. They didn’t yet have a relationship with his
children’s school, and because his children couldn’t speak English well,
Asai found himself playing the role of language teacher while also
helping them with their lessons.
"Our English sessions are kind of fighting, honestly," Asai said with
a laugh. "That was not so easy, but at that time, I’m using cartoons to
teach English to the kids, through TV programs."
Asai got creative, using his third grade daughter’s homework to help
teach his sixth-grade son; using the science book, and Google translate,
to help work on math, which was easy for his son, while focusing on
sentences, which was harder for him.
"I tried to explain the mess. What is the sentence meaning, what is
‘add,’" Asai joked. "But now they have good memory though, other than
Shintaro Watanabe, manager for Toyota Tsusho, experienced a similar
struggle when he moved to the U.S. as a teenager. As with Asai’s family,
Watanabe moved to the United States when his parents got jobs here.
Although Watanabe’s parents eventually returned to Japan, he decided
to stay. He attended college and eventually landed a career that led him
to Mississippi in 2013. He met his wife, Ryoko Watanabe, Toyota
Mississippi’s HR business analyst, and now the couple are part of
Toyota’s permanent staff.
Like her husband, Ryoko Watanabe, who leads Toyota’s efforts to
increase awareness of Japanese culture within TPSD, has also lived in
the U.S. 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’ adjustment to the U.S. During presentations, she
shares the cultural differences between America and Japan, challenges
during relocation adjustment, and how TPSD is creating opportunities for
"I am very thankful I got this opportunity because this is my
passionate area, based on my own graduate and undergraduate research
about how immigrants or temporary residents are impacted by the cultural
adjustment and how their mental health is impacted," Watanabe said.
Shino Sullivan was surprised that North Mississippi already had a
Japanese Supplementary School when she moved to Oxford in 2011. Before
that, Sullivan thought the usual destinations for coming to the United
States were the big places: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Mississippi
"I didn’t even know there was a Japanese community in Mississippi
when I moved here," she said.
Now, Sullivan is director of UM’s US-Japan Partnership Program, under
which the supplementary school is offered. Since she started as an
instructor in 2011, she’s seen the program grow from a few to over 26
participants and move from a classroom on UM’s main campus to their own
Sullivan is a passionate proponent in her role. To ensure students
maintain their cultural and educational connections, the supplementary
school teaches three subjects according to Japanese Ministry of
Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology guidelines.
"For students, this is a very short time in their life, living in
North Mississippi," Sullivan said. "I want them to feel they’re not
isolated, to have confidence as a Japanese (person)."
The school follows the Japanese school system calendar, hosting
classes on Saturday at 9:00am to around 3:00pm from April to March.
Students are taught in Japanese, follow punctual scheduling, and
practice Japanese customs.
With 16 families, the program is close-knit. Instead of separate
classrooms, each grade is taught in the same building. Because they
cover first to ninth grades, each of the program’s four tutors teaches
at least two grades. The parents are hands-on, often helping as needed.
"I think they need community," Sullivan said. "We don’t have a wide
Japanese society, but they definitely want to connect with other
Japanese people in the area."
The cultures blend
Richardson, BancorpSouth’s Japanese liaison, has been saying goodbye
for 13 years. She’s watched numerous families return to Japan. Over the
years, the faces change, but the pattern remains the same.
"Japanese people are here to learn. It’s not just that they are here
visiting, they are actually living here," Richardson said. "They know
how to appreciate their experiences."
They bring with them their food, language, clothing, and culture.
Sometimes, they bring Japanese costumes for special occasions. With
limited Asian grocery options, they learn how to make Japanese food with
Southern and Japanese cultures blend out of necessity.
"They adjust, and instead of this ingredient, how about I use what’s
available here, and then they just experiment," Richardson said. "Food
is (a) core culture of Japan, but by coming here, they learn how to make
what they like using what’s available."
For Kikuchi, her role as a Japanese liaison is all about easing the
transition from Japan to Mississippi. She’s helped create the North
Mississippi Cherry Blossom Festival in Tupelo and promotes Japanese
culture as a board member for the Gumtree Museum of Art and North
Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and involvement with the Tupelo Suzuki
She was honored by the Government of Japan for her efforts in helping
bridge southern and Japanese cultures.
Even after years of living in the U.S., Kikuchi remembers what it was
like to be a newcomer in this country, far from her home and culture,
and how much comfort and help she needed to make that transition.
Now, she wants to repay that kindness by helping others with their
own journeys from Japan to Mississippi.
"Hopefully I can share my part back to the community, not only for
Japanese families but also for (the) American community," Kikuchi said.
"It’s scary if you don’t speak the language, and I think if we can
overcome the difference between the culture and the language, we can
make a great friendship."
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