Saturday Language School at IU Southeast Nurtures Kentuckiana Japanese Community

By Steven Krolak

NEW ALBANY, Ind. (April 1, 2016) – Kindergarteners Lily Soseno and Toshiya Nakamura have no idea that by spending their Saturdays on the IU Southeast campus, they are helping to strengthen southern Indiana’s economy.

Both children are enrolled at the Greater Louisville Japanese Language School, better known as Japanese Saturday School, which has been held at IU Southeast since 1988.

Japanese Saturday School provides members of the Japanese community in Louisville and southern Indiana with a means to continue their children’s education in their native language.

At the same time, participants cement bonds between their employers, IU Sud-Est and the local community, providing benefits that go far beyond schooling.

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Japanese Saturday School is overseen by the Japan Center, whose office is in Knobview Hall. The Center coordinates the school among other activities, including fundraising and cultural awareness.

The students, children from Japanese families currently in kindergarten through ninth grade, come 40 Saturdays a year for classes in language, math, social studies and, for kindergarten, music and art. During the warmer months there are outdoor activities, games and free games.

The school also brings Japanese culture to the fore at events in Louisville and southern Indiana, such as the traditional New Year’s Banquet, and when opportunities arise.

Like other similar programs across the country, the Japanese Saturday School at IU Southeast is funded in part by the Japanese government, in part by tuition, and in part by relocation grants provided by Japanese employers. The aim is to support the cultural identity and Japanese-style education of its young nationals living abroad, especially those who will only be living in another country – in this case the United States – temporarily.

JSS3.1The typical length of stay for a family is between three and five years. That’s long enough for a child to get used to the American education system, which makes it difficult to re-enter Japan.

“Children learn easily but also forget easily, especially when they speak English with friends all week at school,” said Shinji Otsubo, chairman of the school’s board of trustees and vice president of the administration of Idemitsu Lubricants America Corporation, based in Jeffersonville, Indiana. “Saturday School is an important opportunity for them to continue learning Japanese.”

This is especially important given the unique structure and curriculum of the Japanese education system, to which Japanese Saturday School is aligned. The curriculum is sent to the school by the Japanese Ministry of Education. While students attend local schools full-time during the week, they remain focused on their ultimate return to Japan through Saturday lessons and daily homework, as well as conversation at home.

Cultural and economic impact

The school reflects the interconnected global economy and the role of the Kentuckiana region in it.

Japanese companies are well represented locally, primarily in the automotive manufacturing supply chain, but also in logistics services and stevedoring at the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville. Their names may not be household words, but they have a profound effect on the local economy.

“Since the 1980s, when the first Japanese companies set up shop here, we have seen a steady growth in the number of Japanese investments, and the number of employees working for these companies has increased dramatically,” said Matthew Hall, executive vice president of One Southern Indiana. “Employing more than 1,200 people in Clark and Floyd counties alone, Japanese companies today provide many opportunities for Hoosier families.”

The Japan Center originally included representatives from six Japanese companies represented in the region, including American Air Filter, DA Inc., Hitachi Cable, Idemitsu Lubricants, Mytex Polymer and Zeon Chemical, according to Katsuhiko Banno, chairman of the board. .

Today, this list has grown to nineteen, encompassing Aisin Drivetrain, American Fuji Seal, Arvin Sango, Austin Tri Hawk, Katayama America, Kintetsu World Express, MISA Metal Fabricating, Miyama USA, NHK Spring Precision, Yamamoto FB , Yamato Transport, Steel Technology , and Aluminum Tri Arrows.

Japan’s management personnel work with local employers at various levels of the industrial process, providing specialized leadership and services related to their primary specialty. Some are there to manage a project, and will return to Japan once the project is finished. Others may have a longer-term commitment, but still plan to return in order to continue their professional development and resume their lives in their home country. Still others are leaders of their own companies who have made their home here, serving the niche industry they have come to target.

Many bring their spouses and children.

Banno himself is president of DA Inc., a division of Kojima Auto Technology that provides plastic clips, clips and protectors for electrical wiring harnesses for Toyota, Honda and other automakers.

Its headquarters and distribution center are located in Charlestown, Indiana, where it has been an integral part of the landscape for 27 years. The company employs 17 local workers and last year announced a $10.6 million expansion of its manufacturing operations at the River Ridge Commerce Center that will bring employment to 35. The plant will open in mid-September of this year.

Banno enrolled his two sons in Saturday school 25 years ago. The family returned to Japan, but Banno returned to southern Indiana to oversee the expansion of DA Inc.. His involvement with the Japan Center had a very personal motivation.

“I feel like I have to do something back for the school and the community,” he said.

Japanese community anchor

For the 2015-16 school year, the school has 23 children from 15 families. It has eleven employees, including nine paid teachers and the rotating volunteer positions of Eiji Hosotani, director, and Otsubo, chairman of the board.

While kids are learning, parents can focus on organizing events, fundraising, or just getting together.

“Saturday school is now the basis of communication between parents and families, even for those who don’t have children,” Banno said.

Otsubo also sees value beyond the purely academic for the Japanese population in the area.

“In this area, there are not many Japanese people, and no Japanese clubs or news sources, so it’s not easy to find Japanese friends,” he said. “Speaking in English continuously is a bit difficult for us. But we can relax when we speak freely in Japanese, so for parents, school is also important.

Besides its value as a gathering place for the Japanese community, the Japan Center and Japanese Saturday School are the only de facto local resources about Japan and Japanese culture for the non-Japanese community.

Fly into the future

At its peak, before the recession, the Japanese Saturday school was about double its current size. As the contraction spread to the auto manufacturing sector here and in Japan, fewer executives were posted overseas and registrations plummeted. The Japan Center now complements corporate and government support and tuition with fundraising plans, and the economy has regained momentum, as evidenced by the expansion of local Japanese businesses.

The school’s website lays out its vision in poetic terms that underscore its essential role in an even more diverse community than when the school was founded.

“Teaching the language of Japan and the United States, so that we can fly into the future as an international people with a broad vision. . .”

Ichiko Epperson has been involved with the school for many years, serving as a parent, teacher, and also coordinator of the Japan Center on campus. Like several other volunteers over the years, she is married to an American and came to the group to keep its culture alive for herself and her children.

“As long as there are students, we will continue to teach,” she said.

Front page photo: Japanese Saturday School teacher Ms. Yuko Sparks with kindergarten students Lily Soseno and Toshiya Nakamura.

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