October 2, 2023

‘A wide perspective’: Learning Japanese, American culture through language and education | Local News

Shino Sullivan knows most of the North Mississippi Japanese Supplementary School’s students are in the United States temporarily.

As the University of Mississippi’s US-Japan Partnership Program director, her goal is making those years an enlightening time of learning life in the South.

“I want them to know it’s a very short period of their lives, but I believe these few years for them was a very good opportunity or rare opportunity, very valuable for them even if they don’t live in New York or Los Angeles,” Sullivan said.

Many of the supplementary school’s students are the children of Toyota Mississippi’s Japanese workers, who typically work at the Blue Springs plants for two to three years before returning to Japan. UM and Japanese companies established the school in 2008 to help students maintain the skills necessary to succeed in their educations upon returning to Japan.

“That was the beginning, those families looking for schools, opportunities to keep up with their school, Japanese studies,” Sullivan said.

A Japanese education in the United States

Sullivan became director of the North Mississippi Japanese Supplementary School in 2017, but her career there began a decade ago as an instructor. Since she was a teacher when she lived in Japan, the school’s former director asked if she’d be interested in replacing her. She accepted the offer.

Juggling a full-time job during the week and working at the school all day on Saturday was a challenge.

“I didn’t mind helping, but it was really hard,” Sullivan said. “But I enjoyed it anyway from the beginning, and now I can just concentrate on (the) school … and the kids.”

Whereas the students attend American school during the weekdays and may have a hard time adjusting, Sullivan wants to ensure the Japanese school keeps them from falling behind in their educations back home in Japan. Part of her job is mirroring students’ Japanese education. They use the same textbooks as Japanese schools and follow the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology curriculum guidelines.

The school library boasts more than 400 Japanese books in various genres to borrow. The school year runs from April to March, the Japanese school system calendar, with holiday breaks. While they cannot do every subject, focusing on Japanese, mathematics and social studies, the students study hard.

“We have a lot of homework,” Sullivan said, laughing.

It pays off. The school follows students’ progress back in Japan. While other subjects may be difficult, most students do well and can obtain a high school or college exam successfully, Sullivan said.

“I’m proud of them and proud of the instructors’ hard work,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to contribute to their Japanese education and while the Japanese students are here, they learn a lot of differences and cultures.”

The school is also helpful for families like Ryoko and Shintaro (Shin) Watanabe’s of Toyota Mississippi. The Watanabes’ daughters have never lived in Japan, but the couple wants them to have a relationship with the family’s native country.

“They are Japanese-Americans, but they are still having the opportunity to learn Japanese, because we are trying to raise them bilingual,” Ryoko Watanabe said.

The supplementary school is a special passion for Shin Watanabe. He was once a dispatch child in Ohio. His wife taught at supplementary schools in other states, meaning he’s experienced supplementary schools in various roles.

“I was a student, I was a teacher, I was a PTO chairman,” Shin Watanabe said.

For Shin Watanabe, the school represents a way for children to learn Japanese culture and how to behave in Japanese schools. For example, students clean up after themselves after eating, which is a fundamental custom.

Adjusting to American culture

To help students transition to American schools, Toyota Mississippi partners with the Tupelo Public School District (TPSD) to expose schoolchildren to Japanese culture.

“The reason, I think, why we wanted to partner with TPSD is that because they are the agents to educate the future citizens,” Ryoko Watanabe said. “If we can leverage the power to partner with them, I think we can actually impact the community itself through Japanese culture.”

Ryoko Watanabe’s desire for education motivated her decision to come to the U.S. for college.

“I loved learning English, in general, in middle school and high school days,” she said. “Then I was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and I just kind of wanted to immerse myself in a diverse culture back then.”

Watanabe uses her own experiences to guide her efforts with TPSD. Usually, schools ask for programming, and her Japanese friends help her. Some Japanese families with Toyota volunteer to showcase origami or calligraphy at schools.

“That’s a great way to communicate the Japanese culture with the local families,” Ryoko Watanabe said.

Kumi Richardson witnessed a consistent pattern among the countless families she’s helped as BancorpSouth’s Japanese liaison and premier banking specialist/personal banker. When Japanese families transition to the States, sometimes there are mixed feelings about if the children will like their U.S. schools or Saturday school better.

Richardson noted that while some children may prefer the Saturday school better in the beginning because they speak Japanese, eventually that changes as they become more comfortable at their American schools.

“Their attitude, mind, may change. They are more relaxed here, I think, and then I think in that sense, the teachers here are doing the right thing,” Richardson said. “They’re very helpful and very understanding as well.”

Learning the language

While the kids eventually learn the language through school, and husbands and fathers may learn through exposure with other American workers, Richardson said one group often gets left behind.

“Moms, wives, they’re the last to learn,” Richardson said. “At the same time, they’re so willing to learn, so if there are events, they participate.”

There are reasons for this. According to Richardson, many Japanese women aren’t able to work in the U.S. because of visa restrictions. Instead, they fill their time taking part in the communities in which they’ve moved and by taking care of their families.

But that might mean not having enough time, exposure or interaction with American people to learn English as quickly as their spouses or children. However, Richardson noted how many families who move are excited to have a cultural experience in America.

“They’re willing to learn and then they’re very, very open to new things,” Richardson said. “Without the mom’s efforts and care for the family, it’s not possible.”

The ESL program at First Baptist Church in Tupelo is where many can and have learned.

The program began approximately 15 years ago with the goal of helping non-native English speakers learn the language, said ESL co-director Katy Wallace. Starting out, students were primarily Hispanic/Latino, but the program is open to all languages. While the most recent influx has been Japanese students, they’ve hosted multiple language groups, and the program remains open to all cultures.

“The purpose, of course, is to help them adjust to American culture, to learn English so that they can communicate adequately,” Wallace said. “The special part of English as a second language in our program is that we teach them about Jesus.”

Classes are held Monday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, with different levels of instruction from beginner to advanced. Each teacher develops their own lesson plan that best works for students. While class sizes vary, there are usually at least five students per class, and they offer a program and nursery care for students’ children.

They’ve established relationships outside of class through visits and teaching how to make native dishes. In the past, Japanese families have shared how to make sushi and demonstrated traditional Japanese crafts, like origami and kite-making. A few times a year, the ESL program has a potluck where they encourage students to bring native dishes, and toward year’s end, they have a large celebration for families to attend. Local liaisons inform families of events, and the church tries to have a socialization event once a month.

“We’ve noticed also how gracious the Japanese people are in accepting other cultures,” Wallace said. “The main thing is just their desire to learn English, to be able to communicate while they’re here in America. I think that’s the primary reason, but they do enjoy the socialization.”

Shoji Asai, a group manager at Toyota Mississippi, said the ESL has been extremely helpful since his family moved to Northeast Mississippi nearly 20 months ago. The class helped bring his family closer to Mississippians and exposed them to other cultures striving to learn English.

“Through the ESL, my wife also can learn English, and my kids can make friends from Mexico or (other countries),” Asai said. “Now they get used to, thanks to that education. That is very important.”

A wide perspective

Toyota Mississippi is continuing their partnership with TPSD, and Ryoko Watanabe is open to expanding to other schools.

“We’re still in the early phase, but we’re talking about how we can build a further relationship to support the Japanese families,” Watanabe said.

Eventually, Watanabe wants to program to extend beyond Japanese families.

“This can easily apply to any ELL (English language learners),” Watanabe said.

Exposure and relationship-building with other cultures is important to Sullivan of the North Mississippi Japanese Supplementary School. She wants to teach students how to express themselves in the United States. Since Japan is an isolated island, Sullivan said, being in America naturally exposes students to people from other countries and cultures they may not have encountered while living in Japan.

“We have a vision. I want them to know it’s not only Japan or U.S. I want them to see a wide perspective,” Sullivan said.

While the pandemic has created new challenges for her students, limiting their ability to take part in the school’s usual international events, Sullivan is glad they receive community support from the American teachers, UM, neighbors, companies, coworkers and friends to the supplementary school teachers.

“In Mississippi, the people are very kind and generous,” Sullivan said. “I think (students) already feel it, even if they don’t know what they are saying.”