Kentucky is home to more than 4,500 Japanese citizens, many of them connected to one of the numerous Japanese companies doing business here.
The news media tend to focus on the economic to-and-fro between "Japan, Inc." and Kentucky, but often pay less attention to what this part of the world looks like through the eyes of the Japanese people living and working here. And how do their perceptions and experiences affect the larger economic picture?
One man whose job is to answer questions like that is Motohiko Kato, a history buff who learned the words to My Old Kentucky Home as a child in Tokyo.
Kato is the Consul-General of Japan in Nashville, meaning he's the Japanese government's chief representative in the mid-South. The Japanese consulate in the Music City assists Japanese nationals and businesses in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Kato has been stationed there since 2012 and makes frequent visits to Kentucky. His career has included stints in Iran, Singapore, the Philippines, Washington, D.C. and Afghanistan.
I spent three years teaching English in Japan. I interviewed Kato shortly before the Japan-America Society of Kentucky's annual Shinnenkai (Japanese new year) party on Jan. 23 at the Kentucky Governor's Mansion. This is an edited transcript of my conversation.
Question: How do you see the ongoing interaction between Kentucky and Japan?
Answer: The relationship between Kentucky and Japan is very strong. There are about 170 Japanese companies in Kentucky today. They employ more than 40,000 people here and I think there's reason to be optimistic that those numbers could increase. Japanese companies are looking to globalize. Japanese investment is decreasing in China and increasing in the U.S. That could mean more opportunities for Kentucky.
Q: What are some things about Japan that you think people in Kentucky and the U.S. could understand better than they do?
A: It's perhaps important I think to understand that Japan is a small country, smaller in geographic size than California, and we have no significant natural resources. So we must do business with other countries. Japan has the third-largest economy in the world behind the U.S. and China, but China has more than a billion people. Japan has 127 million people, less than half the population of the U.S. Those basic facts are important to understanding Japan. Also, we're looking to the future, too. Japan has been working hard to develop green technologies and improve energy efficiency. The Japanese are very adaptable.
Q: I've noticed that some folks who come here from Japan find ways to make friends and connect with the larger community in Kentucky. But other Japanese seem to struggle with this and wind up living fairly insular lives. What have you observed about this?
A: For many Japanese, language is the biggest challenge. We study English in school for years, but the emphasis is on reading and writing. Traditionally, people in Japan didn't attach importance to speaking and self-expression. Also, many people feel shy and hesitate to speak in English because they don't want to make mistakes and feel embarrassed. I know that feeling. I spent two years studying at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. And I was very impressed that people spoke their opinions, it was part of the class. And other international students, even some whose English was far from perfect, they would speak and try to communicate and that's how they learned and improved. I learned from that. So I tell Japanese people, "Speak. Try to speak and communicate. It's OK."
Q: Are there things that Kentuckians can do to make that transition easier?
A: Yes, please reach out to your new neighbors or co-workers. Invite Japanese people to your house or out to a happy-hour gathering. If Americans reach out to them, there is a good chance they can have a good relationship with one another.
Q: I understand you're a student of American history. Tell me about that.
A: I'm especially interested in the American Civil War. In Kentucky, I've visited the birthplaces of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. What's always interested me about it is the idea that 500,000 people — Americans — lost their lives to other Americans. I've always found that war fascinating.
In fact, there's a connection to Japan there as well. Right after the U.S. Civil War we had a similar situation in which one side wanted to keep the feudal system and the other wanted to form a modern government. In fact, there were weapons from the U.S. that had been used in the Civil War that were bought and shipped to Japan and used there.
Q: You got to see war up close when you worked in Afghanistan. What was that like?
A: In 2004, I volunteered to serve in Kabul. It was a great challenge. There were many very energetic diplomats from all over the world there and trying to work hard for the reconstruction of that country. I was there when they had their first democratic election. It was exciting, gratifying, but very hard, of course. The Taliban would fire rockets sometimes near where we were. And everywhere I went, bodyguards would accompany me with machine guns.
Q: You have a wife and two children, who are grown now, but were they with you there?
A: No, but they came with me when I was in Iran for two years in the 1990s. There are of course radical elements in the government, but the Iranian people are very family-oriented and kind. My children loved living in Tehran. They still talk about it.
Q: Why did you learn the lyrics to My Old Kentucky Home as a child?
A: When I was a boy, we learned songs from different countries in school. And the United States was represented by Stephen Foster. We learned that and Oh! Susanna and songs like that.
Q: And now you live in the part of the world rendered in those songs. So that brings up an important final question: What are your favorite Southern foods?
A: There are many, but if I must choose, I would say these: New Orleans gumbo, Memphis barbecue, Mississippi catfish sandwich and Kentucky bourbon.