Japanese businesses and communities thrive in Northern Kentucky

In Mr. Baseball, Tom Selleck’s 1992 gaffe-fest set in Japan, there is a scene where Selleck clumsily reads an apology to his teammates in broken Japanese for his litany of insensitive cultural blunders.

Selleck’s character, traded to the Chunichi Dragons by the New York Yankees, represents an amusing stereotype:  the clumsy foreign barbarian bumbling his way through the intricacies of Japanese etiquette.

In the years since Mr. Baseball, a reversal has taken place.  From Ichiro Suzuki to Hideki Matsui, first a trickle, now a flood of Japanese talent is venturing across the Pacific to hit it big in the American Major Leagues.

And when these Japanese sluggers come to Cincinnati, there’s only one place to go after the game: Aoi.

“All the famous baseball players go” to Aoi, says Akiko Strickland, Executive Director of the Japan America Society of Greater Cincinnati (JASGC). 

Aoi (pronounced ah-oh-ee and meaning “blue” in Japanese) is a sleek Newport restaurant and sign of the times.  Over the past two decades a burgeoning Japanese community has planted roots in Northern Kentucky, but has blended in so well it seems no one has noticed.    

Yet, Japan is the largest source of foreign direct investment in the Cincinnati region.  There are over 100 Japanese owned firms in the Greater Cincinnati region and a large community of Japanese emissaries running them.

“In the old days people coming to work here were really elite,” Strickland says.  “But nowadays all the small auto suppliers have to come.  Otherwise they lose business.”

Authentic restaurants, such as Aoi, Miyoshi, and Joan (pronounced Joe-on) as well as the region’s largest Japanese K-12 Saturday school, and a number of social networking groups make the move to Northern Kentucky as smooth as possible for relocating Japanese.

The wives of Japanese employees “have lots of support from their husbands’ companies,” says Namie Joyce, who moved to the US from Hiroshima with her American husband.  Citing an example, she says, “there is a Toyota wife’s group…who hangs out together and goes to the same places.”

The Sushi Club is such a group, aimed at singles and young professionals.  This club meets every other month at a different sushi restaurant to sample the goods. 

“We welcome anybody,” Strickland says of this excellent cross-cultural networking opportunity. 
Most Japanese singles make only “two runs: work and the grocery,” Strickland continues.  This realization inspired her to create opportunities, such as the Sushi Club, for these singles to “connect with people in the community with different backgrounds.”

On a Friday night, in Aoi’s private dining room, members of the Sushi Club sit patiently.  After much anticipation, two formally dressed servers present savory platters of sushi to all. 

Everyone digs in.  After eating, they rate the experience.  The ratings are later compiled on a website, to serve as a guide for local sushi connoisseurs. 

Gatherings like the Sushi Club are possible thanks to support from the strong corporate roster of JASGC. 

Toyota’s US headquarters, based in Erlanger, is the nexus point of the action.  Around Toyota a profusion of automotive-related Japanese businesses dot the Northern Kentucky map. 

A mover and shaker in environmentally friendly practice, Toyota is poised to play a major role in creating more economically and environmentally sound automobiles.   

The same goes for the smaller suppliers supporting this international giant.

Protec America Research and Technology, Inc. (PART) is one such example.

PART is a consultancy with a staff of three that helps set up offices, translates technical documents and acts as cultural liaison for Japanese companies in Northern Kentucky.

PART exists “because of Toyota and the Toyota suppliers,” says Shin Kameyama, PART’s North America Project Manager.

Kameyama first encountered America when he transferred from his university in Japan, where he jokes he’d “never been to a library,” to Arizona State University.  He was surprised and impressed by his peers’ dedication to study at ASU, where he earned a BA in Recreational Tourism.   

In Japanese universities “being a good student is being a good listener,” Kameyama says.  In the US university system he learned to speak up and be critical.

However, school at the K-12 level is a whole different matter.

In Japan students are pressured to approach school with a zeal that would make the crème de la crème of the American honor roll blush.

Children face stiff competition from pre-school in Japan. 
To keep their minds sharp while being away from home, over 400 students, grades K-12, attend the Japanese Language School of Greater Cincinnati (JLSGC).

At JLSGC classes are held every Saturday on the Northern Kentucky University campus where everything is conducted in Japanese.

Despite only meeting once a week, teachers manage to cram a week of material into each class.  This includes a rigorous mathematics regimen and heavy emphasis on reading and writing Japanese.

It’s hard to imagine how the students soldier on.

“Lots of homework,” says Chiharu Herndon, Office Manager of JLSGC.   

At a recent JLSGC open house Pokemon and Hello Kitty lunch packs line the windowsill in Mrs. Imanishi’s second grade classroom.  Posters in Japanese script – of which there are three used in mind-boggling combinations – hang from the walls. 

As class begins, the children stand and face one student leader in front.  At his lead, they bow in unison and sit down. 

Mrs. Imanishi instructs them to take out their pencils and get to work.  All talking ceases as they fervently pour over their multiplication tables in a race to finish first.

One by one they begin calling out “Finished!” in Japanese, while the teacher, stop watch in hand, informs them of their times.  Olympic style.

This simulated Japanese classroom prepares its students to reintegrate into the school system back home when they return. 

In Japan there are elementary “entrance exams for five year-old kids,” Kameyama says.  “I think it’s crazy,” he laughs.  

Crazy or not, these kids are the future of our vitally important relationship with Japan. So it’s good to know they’re being well prepared, even in Northern Kentucky.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Miyoshi Japanese Restaurant

My lunch at Miyoshi

Playground dodgeball at JLSGC

Shin Kameyama

Classroom at JLSGC

Student lunch boxes

To receive Soapbox free every week click here.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.