FRANKFORT — When the Japan America Society of Kentucky sent me an invitation to the 2014 shinnenkai, or New Year's party, at the Governor's Mansion, it prompted this vision: Gov. Steve Beshear, holding a 21-ounce bottle of Asahi Super Dry beer, filling my glass and urging me to drink.
I imagined this because that was my experience with shinnenkai in Japan, where I taught English for three years. Such parties often featured men of local prominence (the principal, superintendent or mayor) walking around with open bottles, insisting on the honor of refilling everyone's beer glasses. I recall often feeling so honored I could barely stand let alone perform a respectable karaoke number, a standard Japanese party expectation.
My wife and I came to the society's 25th annual shinnenkai to see how the two cultures we've closely known party together, particularly in an environment like the Governor's Mansion.
(The Japan America Society of Kentucky, or JASK, grants free membership to Kentuckians like us who are alumni of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, though neither of us attend meetings or have an active role in the organization.)
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The JASK gathering on Friday night bore little resemblance to the occasions I attended in rural Fukushima in the 1990s, though the basic idea behind the tradition remained intact: for co-workers and business partners to relax a little, to talk informally and to solidify their connection for the coming year.
Beshear didn't attend (previous engagement), but former Gov. Martha Layne Collins greeted us as we arrived. Collins seemed at ease in the foyer of her former home, welcoming Japanese and American guests, ushering them into a party scene that would have been hard to picture when she moved in 30 years ago. Eager to boost economic development, Collins and her administration decided to try to convince Toyota to locate its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Kentucky, and the mansion played a role.
In 1985, Collins invited some of Toyota's representatives to a special evening that included dinner, champagne, fireworks and the cast of Bardstown's The Stephen Foster Story serenading guests with a rendition of My Old Kentucky Home. The song was doubly apt because Foster's music is widely known in Japan. The mansion offensive, along with a generous package of economic incentives, helped close the deal.
"It was important for us to build relationships," Collins said. "When you're negotiating, you find a way to make it work."
One Japanese term for somehow finding a way is nantonaku. My wife and I learned that when we lived in Japan without speaking fluent Japanese, and the concept is applicable every day for the 4,278 Japanese nationals who live in Kentucky.
Yoshinori Hattori is a human resources coordinator for Toyota Tsusho in Georgetown. He, his wife and two sons live in the Wellington neighborhood on Lexington's south side.
His wife, Mina, joined the handbell choir at Immanuel Baptist Church. Their older son, Shota, plays baseball for Lafayette High School. They're about to return to Japan after five years in the Bluegrass and said they are looking forward to returning to familiar linguistic and cultural territory.
What are their favorite aspects of Kentucky?
"The wide land and nature," Yoshinori Hattori said.
"More free time here," Mina Hattori added, referring to her husband's work schedule, which is likely to be more demanding when they return to Japan.
At a formal shinnenkai in Japan, for example, they probably wouldn't be attending together. Japanese office parties tend to involve colleagues and not spouses or significant others. There would be a series of official speeches, perhaps devoted to goals for the coming year, and then the beer and sake would arrive. After that, Yoshinori Hattori said, chuckling, "No rule." In other words, what happens at shinnenkai stays at shinnenkai.
None of the 210 patrons who attended the JASK shinnenkai appeared to need that latitude. Most wore business professional attire (suits and dresses), though a few, including at least one of my fellow hakujin, or Caucasians, wore kimono.
The buffet table offered a study in cross-cultural cuisine that led me to put Henry Baines sauce and wasabi on the same plate for what I could only imagine was an awkward first meeting, but it produced satisfying results.
There were speeches, of course, (though no karaoke) from Collins, JASK executive director David Carpenter, and Japanese Consul-General Motohiko Kato. They touted various new and recent milestones in the Japan-Kentucky relationship, including:
■ Toyota's decisions to produce a Lexus model at its Georgetown plant and to serve as title sponsor for the Governor's Mansion Centennial Celebration.
■ JASK's receipt of a grant to open an office in Bowling Green to better serve Japanese business concerns in southern and Western Kentucky.
■ On the cultural side, JASK will sponsor the first Kentucky Japanese Speech Contest for high school and college students at Lafayette on March 1.
After the sake toast, I found Bruce Carpenter, economic development director for the city of Corbin. My dad grew up there, and I confessed to Carpenter that I'd long thought of Corbin as a place perhaps too rooted in the past to embrace an event like this. Apparently, I'm wrong.
"You don't really see that (attitude) anymore," Carpenter said. "We understand that it's a global world and we have to look beyond the boundaries of Kentucky to attract industry to our region. Creating jobs for our people is a great thing."
I thought of my two great-uncles, both from small Kentucky towns, both of whom fought in the Pacific during World War II. One once said he'd never be able to trust a Japanese person because of the war. Had they lived to see this day, it's hard to imagine their reaction, though I think, ultimately, they'd be pleased.
Away from the podium, Collins acknowledged that even after Toyota was sold on Kentucky, the reverse wasn't immediately true. Some Kentuckians embraced the deal immediately; convincing others who "couldn't forget the past" was tough at first, "but it was a good deal for Kentucky," she told me, raising her voice to be heard over the bilingual crowd noise all around us. "We just had to keep moving forward."
And into a new year.