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Recipe for Success : Japanese in Dixie: Grits and Gentility

Times Staff Writer

It was the evening before the big public ceremony to announce his Japanese company’s decision to build a $25-million videotape factory here, and Kenji Awakura was growing nervous over his speech.

Awakura, the new plant’s manager-to-be, decided to try out his remarks on his host, a local businessman. The Tuscaloosan said the speech, a relatively straightforward pitch on Awakura’s hopes for the factory, was “no good. It may be good for an audience in the North--but not in the South. You’ve got to add some human touches.”

Awakura was both floored and delighted. Japanese love to “humanize” their business speeches, but Awakura had grown accustomed to dry American addresses in the North, where he had lived for six years. More remarkable yet, Awakura says, the specific touches his host suggested were uncannily akin in spirit to the Japanese style.

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Awakura quickly rewrote his remarks to include a description of the little bird that seemed to greet him with typical Southern hospitality at the airport. He also served up an anecdote about his first Southern breakfast, quipping: “Grits can be international, too--with a little Japanese soy sauce.”

The speech was a hit. “That way of making a speech was so close to the Japanese way, I was in no trouble at all,” says Awakura, executive vice president of JVC Magnetics America Co. For Awakura, that moment three years ago was the beginning of an excellent relationship.

Awakura’s experience is not unusual. In the last 15 years, thousands of Japanese have poured into the South, most of them businessmen on temporary assignments to oversee their company operations in the region. Almost invariably, they arrive expecting deep culture shock. Almost universally, they find that, when East meets West below the Mason-Dixon Line, the twain have a lot in common.

Much in Common

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The cultural affinities, Japanese say, range from the South’s form of gracious hospitality and genteel manners to its fiercely competitive economic spirit and its struggle to preserve its traditional way of life amid widespread economic and social change.

Combined with the relative absence of overt racial bigotry and discrimination aimed at them, this surprising cultural kinship gives the South what many Japanese describe as a secret weapon in the campaign to woo and win Japanese business and investment.

The South is now home to more than 220 Japanese manufacturing plants--a number exceeded among the nation’s regions only by the almost 280 plants in the West, where the Japanese first established their economic beachhead in the United States.

Dixie’s Japanese population, although still relatively small at an estimated total of 23,000, is growing dramatically. In the six states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, for example, the number of Japanese residents jumped by almost 25% in 1987 to a total of more than 15,700, of whom over one-third were classified as permanent residents.

Although the South’s many economic and geographical advantages--such as low taxes, cheap land, surplus labor and balmy climate--unquestionably play the strongest hand in luring Japanese business to the region, the South’s cultural congeniality provides an extra edge in the increasingly stiffening competition for Japanese investment.

“Most Japanese have only a vague idea of the South before they come here,” said Toshi Kii, a Georgia State University sociologist and native Japanese. “But after they get here, they realize how much closer Southern culture is to their own than American culture in general--and the culture of the northeastern United States in particular--and they are usually quite captivated by the experience.”

Takayuki Kimura, the Japanese consul general in Atlanta, says that Southern hospitality and Japanese hospitality flow from similar cultural wellsprings: the deep-seated belief that “outsiders” need constant help and guidance if they are even to begin negotiating such a distinctive and socially complex culture with any hope of success. And this, he says, provides a great psychological relief for Japanese--especially those abroad for the first time.

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“In the North, people generally do not appreciate the difficulties foreigners have in adjusting to American culture,” said Kimura, who has lived in both the Northeast and in Washington, D.C. “If you are lost, for example, that’s too bad. They expect you to act like Americans, and if you don’t, they tend to ignore you. That is true, as a rule throughout the United States.

“In the South, if you are lost, you can almost always count on a Southerner to notice and come to your aid. They don’t expect you to act like an American--much less like a Southerner.”

At the ceremony in mid-January of 1986 to announce JVC’s move here, the numerous dignitaries on hand included former Gov. George C. Wallace, then in the final year of his long political career as the state’s chief executive. Wallace had given Tuscaloosa a lingering reputation as hostile to racial minorities with his 1963 “stand in the schoolhouse door” to block the enrollment of blacks at the University of Alabama. No other person’s presence was perhaps as reassuring to the Japanese that times had indeed changed in this “Heart of Dixie” state and that they were genuinely welcome to town.

The university operates a health care program at its medical center for Japanese families and sponsors a tuition-free Saturday school for Japanese children. The school offers Japanese language instruction and other supplemental studies to keep the youngsters honed for the highly competitive education system they will re-enter upon their return to Japan.

“We are extremely gratified by these measures,” said Awakura, the JVC videotape plant manager. “The biggest concerns for Japanese living outside of Japan are their children’s education, first, and medical care, second.”

To help ease the transition of Japanese into community life, the local Chamber of Commerce runs an “adopt-a-family” program that pairs individual Japanese families with individual Tuscaloosan families who provide the Japanese with one-on-one assistance in adjusting to life abroad.

Debbie Watson, a Tuscaloosa businesswoman and wife of a local city councilman, took a Japanese family under her wing a year and a half ago.

“I had assumed that the wife would be able to handle things like going to the grocery store and shopping on her own--things that Southerners don’t do particularly different from other Americans,” she said. “But one day I found that she was using Windex to wash her dishes. She didn’t drive a car then or speak English very well, and her husband was doing all the shopping. So I took her to the supermarket myself, walked her up and down every aisle and familiarized her with what products were used to do what chores.”

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Although the Japanese wife since has learned to drive and has improved her English, Watson still keeps an eye out for problems. “You never can take anything for granted,” she said.

Each spring, Tuscaloosa involves its Japanese residents in a community-wide Sakura (Cherry-blossom) Festival designed to celebrate the town’s ties with Japan and to acquaint Tuscaloosans with the culture of their new neighbors.

Begun as a one-week celebration with a relative handful of events in 1987, the festival proved so immediately popular it now takes up almost a month on the calendar and features a wide variety of activities, including lectures, symposiums, art exhibits, traditional Japanese music concerts, tea ceremonies, martial arts demonstrations, Japanese cooking and Japanese flower arranging.

Japanese also share with Southerners a deep affection for rural and small-town life as the bedrock of their traditional values and beliefs--even though it is a way of life that has vanished at a rapid pace in Japan.

“This attitude toward agrarian life is declining among people of the younger generation but is still strong among people of the older generation, who are the ones now leading Japanese society in business and government,” Consul General Kimura said.

Tend to Thrive

As a result, most Japanese transplanted to the Dixie countryside tend to thrive, he says. They share fried-chicken dinners with their Southern neighbors, join the PTA, put their children in Scout troops, root for the home team at high school football games, go on picnics and play baseball in the summer, and in some cases, even attend local Sunday church services.

The overwhelming proportion of Japanese manufacturing companies in the South are located outside the region’s big cities--in no small part, Japanese say, because of the compatibility between the small-town and rural way of life and Japanese sensibilities.

In South Carolina, for example, all but one of the state’s 13 Japanese manufacturing firms are in places such as Spartanburg, Camden, Blackburg and Rock Hill. In Tennessee, which boasts more than $1.5 billion in Japanese investment, two-thirds of the 29 Japanese manufacturing concerns--including the Nissan plant in Smyrna, the largest Japanese auto facility in the nation--are in small towns.

“People here are kind and generous,” said Motoaki Yumoto, vice president of Alcoa-Fujikara Ltd., an optical-fiber cable manufacturer in Spartanburg, a Piedmont Carolina community. “I like it a lot. . . . People here do not interfere with others’ lives, but when you are in trouble they certainly help out. And when they think you’ve learned to handle the situation, they leave you alone.”

Japanese are also charmed by the ritual “small talk” Southerners engage in before settling down to more serious business discussions.

“When you have business with a Yankee, they start talking business immediately,” Masayaki Funayama, the former general manager of the Atlanta office of Dai-ichi Kangyo, Japan’s largest bank, said in a published interview. “But here in the South, Southerners will first mention the weather or talk about a football game before getting around to business.”

The Southern approach, he pointed out, is a trait that is “very similar to the Japanese way.”

Both cultures also try to avoid confrontation and minimize dissension in relationships on the job, experts in Japanese culture say.

At the same time, Japanese admire Southerners’ drive for economic excellence, said Masaaki Suzuki, the current head of Dai-ichi Kangyo’s Atlanta office. Both Japan and the South, he points out, went to war against Yankees, suffered a humiliating defeat and endured a traumatic occupation and reconstruction but have since risen to become economic powerhouses, ever eager to outstrip their former military masters.

Japanese seem to have an abiding love of Confederate history and legend. The Civil War is part of the standard curriculum in many Japanese high schools, and “Gone with the Wind” has been a favorite since it first came out as a novel in the mid-1930s.

Kii says that Japanese identify strongly with Scarlett O’Hara’s struggle to preserve her ancestral home and traditional way of life while coping with the vast social and economic upheaval created by the Civil War, seeing many close parallels with Japan’s often frightful and painful experiences in modernizing and the demise of the feudal way of life.

Toshihito Suzuki, 35, a Japanese consular official in Atlanta, even shares a passion for traditional Southern cooking.

“I love grits,” he said. “Whenever I go to a place like the Waffle House, I always order grits. They remind me of the rice gruel I used to eat as a child to build my strength up.”

But most Japanese find little charm in traditional Dixie cuisine--"overcooked and undernourishing,” as one Japanese in the South put it.

Southern dialects also are another cultural bugaboo. “The Southern accent sounds so different from the accent in the textbook English Japanese usually learn,” said Natsuno Nakamura-Loader, a free-lance interpreter and translator from Tokyo who has called Atlanta home for the past eight years and is married to an American.

But Japanese in Dixie encounter little of the openly hostile bigotry and discrimination toward racial minorities that is traditionally associated with Southern culture.

Because of their economic status and the investment they bring to communities, most Japanese find that they usually are treated as an honored guest rather than a resident minority.

There is some resentment. For example, Lewis Grizzard, a syndicated columnist and humorist, denounced the Japanese after it was reported that Japanese investors planned to buy the landmark IBM tower in Atlanta and were thinking about buying another office building.

In a column headlined “Time to Wake Up Before the City Goes Sushi on Us” in the Atlanta Constitution, he said he had been reading a history of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when he learned the news of the Japanese’s investment plans. “Call me xenophobic, but we must draw the line somewhere, my fellow Atlantans,” he wrote.

In Smyrna, Tenn., a prominent local businessman once led an unsuccessful petition drive to name the access road to the Nissan plant Pearl Harbor Boulevard and took out a half-page ad in the local newspaper saying: “Nissan’s here, trouble’s a-coming, I’m a-leaving.”

But, within a year, that same businessman was still in Smyrna and even appeared in a newspaper photo shaking hands with the top Japanese executive at Nissan and nominating him for a Rotary Club membership.

On the other hand, the Japanese have had to deal with criticism that they are racially insensitive, if not downright racist, towards blacks. A study by two University of Michigan researchers contends, for example, that Japanese automobile companies have avoided areas with large black populations when locating new auto factories.

Japanese businessmen and government officials in the South argue that their countrymen are not intentionally racist but are not as sensitive toward other peoples because of their isolated ethnic development.

“I would essentially put it down to the insular experience of the Japanese people and the lack of experience they have in knowing how to relate to black people,” said a white Atlantan who is a veteran observer of Japanese life on both sides of the Pacific.

But perhaps the biggest cultural shock for Japanese in Dixie is the one experienced by those who go back to Japan.

“Poor housing and sky-high food prices make you wonder why you come home again,” Shigeo Minabe, an economics professor at Hiroshima University, wrote in a recent article appearing in the Japanese newspaper Chugoku Shimbun.

“The $150 that some Japanese pay for one fancy melon would purchase several crates of cantaloupes in Austin,” he wrote, adding that Japanese hospitality also suffers by comparison. “Southern hospitality is ingrained in Texans, and they are friendly and kind. But in Japan affluence has taken a toll on civility.”


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