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Adapting To Life In Indiana
Japanese workers find things to admire, and to miss, while working in heartland.
By Vic Ryckaert - The Indianapolis Star
SHELBYVILLE, Ind. - With its corn-fed sensibility and Midwestern values, Shelbyville is distinctly an American city.
It's a lot of things: rural, small-town, suburban. But cosmopolitan?
This city ranks high on international scales, with seven Japanese-owned companies working alongside others from Holland, England and Germany, mostly in the business of manufacturing auto parts.
Shelbyville is 25 miles from the nearest sushi bar, yet about a hundred Japanese citizens call it home.
They live an American dream with a Far-Eastern twist. They reside here on working visas, as heads of companies or supervising engineers.
They shop at local stores. Their children attend local schools. They live in apartments or neat suburban homes with green lawns and two-car garages.
"Yeah, I like. I don't want to go back to Japan," said Mitsutake Yanakita, the 52-year-old vice president of Blue River Stamping, one of seven Japanese companies in Shelbyville.
The soft-spoken man with jet black hair peppered with lots of gray is called "Yana-san" by his friends and co-workers.
He was raised in Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. In his youth, he moved to the big city, Yokohama.
Yanakita and wife, Fumiko, have crossed an ocean to go back to small-town living in Shelbyville, their home since 1993.
For Yanakita, the difference between Japan and Indiana is measured in the length of his lawn, the height of his ceiling.
"Much bigger, my house. Bigger yard" than what he would have in Japan, he said.
Yanakita has a deep appreciation for simple American pleasures like air conditioning on a hot day, roomy cars and lower prices.
A green pepper at Shelbyville's Marsh supermarket is about three times the size and a third the price of a distant cousin found in a Japanese grocery store, Yanakita explained. And gasoline is much more expensive in Japan - about $6 a gallon.
Just as they appreciate many facets of American consumer life, Japanese executives seek in local companies to blend the best business practices from the East and the West.
For example, reflecting Japanese business practices, there are no corner offices with oak desks and big windows. The Japanese executives spend long hours in cubicles next to the rest of the office workers.
However, most factories in Japan have strict dress codes that American workers would find oppressive. So, they have adapted American standards for dress.
"I don't intend to bring the Japanese style to American company," said Yukio Takano, president of PK USA, Blue River's parent company, which is a few blocks away and employs 515 people. "But I will bring some good features of Japanese teamwork to American company."
Outside of the office, most Japanese citizens in Shelbyville are slow to assimilate into the local culture.
Most prefer to stay within their own circles, among other Japanese, who understand their culture, and phrases like "kon-EECH-ee-wah" (good evening).
Local entities try to reach out. The Shelby County International Relations Council, an arm of the county Chamber of Commerce, is designed to help Japanese adapt to life in the United States.
"The language is pretty hard," said Becky Bishopp, an American who works for the Chamber. She leads a Friendship Circle, a weekly social gathering for Japanese wives.
"We do lots of pointing to our dictionaries and drawing," Bishopp said. "It's a problem for us to communicate, but we always seem to manage somehow."
The Japanese women are here on their husbands' visas and are barred from taking paying jobs. But many volunteer with schools or with other groups.
In their culture, Japanese wives are subordinate to their husbands.
Fumiko Yanakita, for example, to celebrate her and her husband's 25th wedding anniversary, served a full Japanese meal to guests at her dining room table, but she did not eat there.
Another woman in Bishopp's Friendship Circle calls her husband "Mister."
This is normal for them, Bishopp said. But, over time, some get used to the freedoms they find in America.
"It's kind of a reverse culture shock when they go back," Bishopp said.
Others, like Fumiko Yanakita, cannot wait to go home.
"I want to leave next year," she said, noting she is homesick for her family.
Her husband enjoys America, with its big vegetables and big yards, but his time here is going to end soon.
It's not up to him. The company owns his house, his furniture and his car, and it dictates that Japanese executives serve a five-year stint in Shelbyville.
Next year, a new executive will take over Yanakita's duties at Blue River. That replacement family will move into Yanakita's neat suburban house.
Yanakita will miss it.
"Life is relaxed here," he says. "I am sitting, look outside, see trees." He reclines slightly, and reflects on life back home. "In Japan, people very busy."
Copyright 2019 PKUSA Inc.