Akiko Kawano Jones is teaching professor emeritus of Japanese language at Bowling Green State University and former director of the Asian Studies Program. She recently retired after 40 years of teaching, but remains active on campus meeting with students, coordinating student exchange programs, supporting the annual Cherry Blossoms Festival and more. She currently resides in Bowling Green, Ohio and grew up in Nishinomiya, Japan.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Akiko and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on February 17, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): Tell me a little bit about when you first came to the U.S. and how you ended up in Bowling Green.
Akiko Kawano Jones (AKJ): I came to the United States, Pennsylvania, and [came to] Bucknell University in 1970. So actually 52 and a half years ago, and then I lived in Pennsylvania for four years as a graduate student. But also I was teaching Japanese to be an assistant for the Japanese program at the University. I had my own classes at the local American High School, Lewisburg High School. I think that was the first high school in the East Coast to have Japanese as one of the regular foreign languages. And then I had a wonderful time. And I came to Bucknell University, being an assistant and then also being a teacher at the local high school, just for 10 months. And then I loved it and they wanted me to stay. So, I just told my parents I would like to stay another year, and another year and then ended up for four years.
And then I got married, and then my husband got the job at a very interesting place in Arizona, you know, Tuba City, and it’s an Indian reservation. So I’ve moved there. Then for the first six months, I didn’t have the visa to do anything. So, I was just about ready to leave, and then my visa and my green card came in, and then I started to teach English. First in a couple of months is just sort of assistant in a high school to the English teacher. But after that, I got my own fourth graders. I’ve never taught the fourth graders, and especially, everything has to be taught in English, right? But I just love the Indian children. 20% of the class was white. The kids and teachers and doctors, children — but the rest are mainly Navajo children, and then also Hopi Indian children, you know, and they were just so sweet. So I fell in love, actually being the teacher for the Indian children. So, I was the one asking my husband to stay another year.
Then my husband was ready to go back to graduate school to get a Ph.D. So we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, in the south of Virginia. So, in Charlottesville, I stayed for years being a mother, but then my husband was given the job, actually, by Bowling Green State University, at the College of Education being a professor there.
Okay, so, we moved here and that first year I was in Japan, so, I didn’t teach. I think I came here in fall in October with my two little kids, a 2-year-old and a 3.5-year-old. And then I found out there was a Japanese program here. However, it just was very small. And then the teacher just left every year and went back. And so somebody found me. That time the professor at Bucknell University said, “You know, there must be a person you should know, whose name is a professor, Dr. Chen.” So, I went to see him and he was so excited, because, “Oh, you had the experience of teaching Japanese, and we do need somebody and then your husband is teaching, which means, you will be staying here for a long time.” So, I said, I wasn’t sure how long I will be staying, but yes, I would love to have teaching as something to do. So I got the job. I started to teach and that was a long, long time ago.
It’s so very, very lucky that I can teach the way I want to do it. I wanted to really build up the Japanese program here, so I did a lot of things with my own time. I invited the students to come to my place and did things together in our culture. Like, I got really into it.
So my first time was about only two classes, but then they changed it to full-time. And then three. The first one was a student, I had 10 students in my one class, and that [was] very small. But just spending more time with the students, and then some more, they get interested. Plus, I think in Ohio, because of Honda, a lot of students started to pay attention to Japanese programs. And also karate was one of them. And then gradually, they tend to get into anime. A lot of students who like anime wanted to take Japanese, and then a business started. So I was really lucky to be in a really great time with karate and anime and then a Japanese business that has really boomed up.
RC: Are people generally familiar with Asian culture when you first came over? Is that something that you had to build up?
AKJ: I have to build up the culture. Actually the interesting thing is when I came to the United States in 1970, the funny questions I was asked by the little kids! “I heard that you live in a paper house and how could you live in a paper house when it rained? Or do you have cars?” Who would ask me if we have cars in Japan, right? Because we are filled with the Japanese cars here, right? So things like that. They’ve hardly any idea about it.
When I came here in ’82 to Bowling Green. I don’t think that they know a lot about Asia, because when I asked the students in my class, “Do you know sushi?” Hardly anybody, only one or two people said yes. “Do you like it?” Most of the students in those days, they said, “I don’t like that raw fish. I don’t like it.” That was it. But then gradually, interestingly, when I asked my students right now, most of the students said, “Yes, I like them.” Japanese foods — it’s really sort of one of their favorite ones. Now, the same thing with Chinese food. The students love Chinese food, right? So, in those days probably, the students are more into hamburgers and potato chips and things like that. So, I have to teach, really, from the very basics of Japanese culture. Definitely.
RC: You’ve had 40 years of teaching. What do students gain from learning about Japanese culture and language?
AKJ: Before they come to my class, in the first 10 years, they do not know much about Japan. So they know about the Japanese characters, nothing more. They know some of the Japanese words they hear on TV, but even on TV, they say funny [words like] “Konnichiwa,” in a kind of funny accent. Things like that, right? But now it’s amazing, because the students are surrounded by YouTube. So they come to my class, and already have some kind of idea about it, right? So they have a really good pronunciation now. Once in a while, I have to correct some of the students. But they kind of already know it, but they’d like to build it up a little bit more.
RC: It’s strange, because I think in the Midwest, specifically, students tend to be very sheltered, or their views or scope is very small, many students don’t ever leave the state.
AKJ: Oh, I really experienced that in the early years. In the first 10 years, when I asked the students, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” Most of them said, “Well, I’m going to go back to [my] hometown.” Especially Honda. “Oh, I’m gonna go back and I’d like to work for Honda.” Hardly anybody said, “I’d like to go out,” right? Because only a few people wanted to go out. So I made up a new kind of internship or exchange programs and stuff like that so as to get them to go and then come back with different ideas about it. But now, not many people will say, “I’d like to go back to my hometown.” Sometimes I feel sorry for the parents.
RC: What do the students get from the exchange program after they come back?
AKJ: I think [one thing that] is very important is the friendship. The friendship that they built is just amazing. The students over there will sometimes come to visit us, and then my students go back there. When I see that the friendship is kept up, I just feel, “Oh, that was just great to see all the students just love it.” I’ve done it almost 20 times now every summer, going over there for one month. I just love it. Yeah, it’s like a family. I feel like I’ve been taking — of course that was 20 years ago, I was younger, right? But now I’m a grandmother’s age, but it’s a nice family, you know, really nice family. So, I always love it.
RC: We talked about raw sushi a while ago, just now in our conversation. So for yourself, how easy is it to upkeep cultural traditions with Japan? Is it easy to access yourself?
AKJ: No, no, it’s not hard to but when I was in Pennsylvania before I came here, I was younger too, so in those days in ’70s, Japan was just really going for the Western things. So when I was young and in my 20s, everything that was American [was] great! In a way I missed [my country], but I don’t think that Japan was that well known by the Americans or anybody in the world in the ’70s. Just think about the ’70s, since the beginning of the ’70s to ’75 until Honda came to Ohio. Japan was not really well known. But Japan was really much interested in Western culture. So, for example, when I left in the ’70s, my great friends envied me, “Oh, you are going to America. It’s nice.” But now, they don’t envy me. They sometimes feel sorry for me when I have to come back. And so in those days I didn’t miss [Japan] that much, because, fortunately, I could speak English, so that I could make friends. Certainly, I had a great time. But then, when Japan was introduced to the United States more, the interesting thing is that I started to feel very homesick — homesick for Japanese food. Not the homesick-homesick type of thing, but just how much I feel that Japanese culture is wonderful. You know, that aspect is there. I know that sometimes you say that when you go to other countries, you really learn how wonderful your own country is. Certainly I experienced in my ’20s, when I was here, I tried to learn and all the things in American things. Also, I never thought I would stay here forever, right? So before I would go back, I was trying to see as much as possible in America in three or four years. Then I started teaching Japanese, so I kind of learn more Japanese culture, and the culture behind the language, too. Some of the language in the Japanese I was speaking when I was in Japan, there’s not much of the meaning. But now, it really meant a lot. So I learned it. But I love both countries. You know, I really love both countries.
RC: Tell me a little bit about your personal home in Japan. What was it like growing up before college?
AKJ: My mother is the daughter of a priest, so she knows a lot about Japanese culture and the Japanese way of living. My father was a typical businessman. I was the youngest one and my two older sisters are much older; they really loved me, of course, because I was the younger one, and also because my parents finished [raising] the first two sisters and then [had] me, so, it was really nice. I think I was very lucky that they put me to Japanese Kobe College — junior high school and senior high school — so I can learn in English.
RC: Was that in the ’50s?
AKJ: No, no, no. ’60s.
RC: In what town?
AKJ: It is Kobe college but the town itself is Nishinomiya [Japan]. N-I-S-H-I-N-O-M-I-Y-A City.
RC: So, you’re pretty much American now. Would you say you’ve spent the majority of your life here?
AKJ: Oh, yeah, most of that time is in America.
RC: Culturally speaking.
AKJ: So culturally speaking, I am more and more of a Japanese way of thinking now. I guess maybe that shows my age. I think the reason is because I teach Japanese. Because if I’m just working for the American company or something, it’s probably a little different, but right now I’m trying to take the best of each one. I have to say that, if I’m given American food and Japanese food in front of me, I would take the Japanese food, definitely. But when you see the size of the house, I will take the American size. Right? So, I’m lucky. Right now it’s not that hard to get the Japanese food.
RC: Where do you get your Japanese food?
AKJ: Right now, because COVID, I just like to make my own. But otherwise when you go to New York and Chicago, you have great Japanese restaurants and so when we go to a conference, it’s usually as a Japanese teacher, we would like to have Japanese food. But I don’t mind having American food. It’s not like some people who cannot live without Japanese soup or Japanese things. No, not like that. I could live.
RC: You’re married to an American as well?
RC: And so your children? How well did they receive the Japanese heritage? Was it difficult? Do they speak the language?
AKJ: Yeah, they do, especially my daughter, both of them. The first word they said [were] Japanese. But [not teaching them more] — that is something that I regret. If my children were born a little bit later — even five or six years later— already Japan was getting the attention. So I could have probably pushed them to learn more Japanese. But they were born in ’79, and ’80, still, not that many people were learning Japanese, right? So I couldn’t have pushed it. The only the reason I want them to speak Japanese is so that they can speak with my parents — that’s the only reason. And they could have used in Japanese in business and things like that.
But my daughter went to Japan more often. She was more interested in Japanese things. So she speaks in Japanese a little better. And then, my son was a swimmer, and he could not go to Japan with me some summers, so he got a little bit behind. And he was a little bit older when the Japan-bashing came up. I like to sometimes blame on that Japan-bashing. One businessman — Sony’s president — wrote the book [“The Japan That Can Say No”], and in that book, they said all Americans are lazy and all kinds of things that they mentioned. So Americans really don’t like that — of course not, right? So, the Japan bashing happened when [my son] was just in the sixth grade. After that, he just told me, “Don’t speak any Japanese to me in front of my friends.” But my daughter was a couple of years younger and she’s not that [way]; she speaks Japanese in front of her friends. So I guess a boy and a girl — or just the two — are just different. So she more accepted it. But both accept it now. So I’m glad that I don’t have any kind of stress or anything, just because they are half. I never thought about it. Yeah, probably, maybe I should have.
RC: You know, on campus, you’re the founder of a lot of major festivals, also the Japanese club. I’m interested in how students respond and how that sort of creates an environment that’s really international in a place like Bowling Green.
AKJ: Yeah, I’m just so lucky because I started the Japanese club. The first one is a very small number, but Japanese club is almost like my life. So, I’m always with the students, and I love to be with students. They gave me a really good energy. I forget about my age. I’m just so happy about having this Japanese club; that’s the only time that I can really talk about the culture. In the very beginning I was the one, but now we have the exchange students in here, too. The students themselves know a lot about Japan, so we covered discussion and can do it, and we will be able to do it together. To an extent, because of the Japanese club, the members are so active, that’s why I thought, “Oh, maybe we can have the Cherry Blossom Festival.” So when we were given the cherry trees, I thought we should do something, and I was going to do only once. But then it turned out to be really, really great. So each year, more visitors came in. So it has been one of the biggest events on campus.
I’m lucky that the president and deans and faculty and also consulate generals of Japan and the mayors come in and give us the greetings. That really inspired my students. So, I’m doing it for the community’s sake, I’m doing it for Japan, and America is the bridge in both. And certainly, I feel that my passion is to let America know Japanese culture and then by doing that, the Japanese would understand how the Americans think, right? I cannot say which is better. We should learn both. That’s what I believe in; that’s what I like my students to think. I don’t know if my students think Japan is the best one — no, they should really like to know their own country’s doing, so that they’ll be able to do right. So when we do the Cherry Festival, it’s really nice that you can see the students themselves really working together, then they learn a lot of things together.