When Philip Kim moved from New York to Michigan in 1994, most people he met didn’t know about even the most popular Asian foods, like sushi. While it’s true the Midwest has historically had less exposure to Asian cultures than, say, coastal states and port cities, Kim, who is Korean American and has 20 plus years of experience in the hospitality industry as well as an extensive knowledge of Asian gastronomy, says things are changing.
One center of this shift for the Midwest is in—of all places—Novi, Michigan, where a new development featuring primarily Japanese and other Asian businesses is in the works. Sakura Novi is slated to be the first of its kind—a mixed-use development that incorporates restaurants, office spaces, residential apartments and a pond and garden area. The proposed location is on Grand River Avenue and Town Center Drive in Novi, and the Sakura Novi development group and the city of Novi aim to begin construction in fall of 2021 with a grand opening projected for spring of 2023.
The project is embedded in a region with a rich economic and cultural history of Asians and Asian Americans in the U.S. Michigan is home to the Midwest’s largest Japanese population, primarily owing to the concentration of Japanese car manufacturers in the state. In Novi, 21.4% of the population is Asian and Asian American compared to only 2.8% statewide.
Their history goes back to the late twentieth century when Japan, experiencing an economic boom and an expansion of its manufacturing prowess on the global stage, began to produce more vehicles per year than the U.S. At this time, Michigan became a hub for Japanese car manufacturers and, as a result of increasing economic ties between Japan and the Great Lakes region, the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit was established in 1993. Since then, Japanese-Americans and Japanese expats have continued to accumulate in the state.
But Japanese communities and the cultural traditions they bring to communities across the U.S. have been rather obscured in the Midwest at large—including Michigan—compared to coastal states and other ports of entry for immigrants; only 2.9% of the population in the Midwest is Asian, while 9.8%, 6.2% and 3.2% of the population is Asian in the West, Northeast and South, respectively.
According to Adam Wolf, a former public affairs advisor at the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit who helped draft the proposal for Sakura Novi, the idea to build a community that resembles a little Tokyo in Novi originated with Ryoji Noda, who was the Japanese Chief General Consul at the time.
Noda envisioned modeling the proposed development after the lively and collegial atmosphere of the night market, or kita no yatai, in the city of Obihiro, Hokkaido, where he is from. Kita no yatai is a cluster of food stands located in Obihiro’s downtown area that serve various cuisines to customers as they stand in the street or sit side-by-side in close quarters.
As the plans moved forward, Scott Aikens, the developer for Sakura Novi, asked Kim to join the project and help advise the development group using his experience in hospitality and Asian cuisine.
“It’s simple things like bringing awareness that there’s a difference between Asian cuisines,” Kim said. “A lot of Caucasian people don’t really understand those differences, [like] what makes something Japanese and what makes something Korean.”
This is particularly important in places like the Midwest, where it can be difficult to convince people to try new cuisines because of lack of exposure, Kim added.
“People in the Midwest haven’t grown up eating or experiencing these things, and because they have not, many people are hesitant to try,” he said.
Kim added that Sakura Novi will be the first development of its kind in Michigan and one of only a few such developments in the Midwest; given the village’s novelty in Michigan—a state that is almost 76% white and largely rural—some believe the project could create the kind of impact that Noda and others envisioned.
This impact is already taking place in the area outside of the Sakura Novi project as Japanese and other Asian businesses become increasingly popular. Sho Ueda, the executive director of the Japan Business Society of Detroit, said that many Japanese and other Asian grocery stores, for instance, are becoming increasingly common in Michigan.
“There are some stores that are no longer managed by Japanese; they are completely localized,” he said.
Ueda mentioned the sushi restaurant Noble Fish located in Clawson, Michigan as another example of the popularity of Japanese foods among locals and said that a large majority of the restaurant’s customers are non-Asian.
According to Kim, the Japanese auto industry as well as other linkages with Asian businesses has helped create this familiarity and demand. He imagines Sakura Novi will be yet another step in leveraging commercial ties to foster connections between U.S. and Asian cultures.
Aside from the goal of enriching the city of Novi with the influence of various Asian cultures, the development group and the city of Novi also envision Sakura Novi as being a home away from home for the Japanese foreign nationals who work in the area’s automotive industry. Around the same time of the proposal for the Sakura Novi project, Wolf said the city of Novi also established a welcome committee to help Japanese nationals, particularly those with little knowledge of English, navigate the area.
“I think that the city of Novi has always been very supportive of the Japanese community overall,” he said.
Building on this hospitality, current plans for Sakura Novi feature housing and work locales for foreign residents near the development’s businesses so that these residents can have convenient access to services and products like those they depend on back home. Aikens also said that the project will integrate concepts that are prominent in Japanese corporate culture, such as revolving sushi bars and Japanese barbeque.
“We really want to have something that’s of the caliber of what these folks who are expatriates would find in Tokyo and also something that will appeal to just the general population,” he said. “We want to make it a very popular regional destination.”
Aikens said that supporting Japanese foreign nationals and other ethnic communities in such a way is not just important culturally but economically, as well.
“We’re competing in mobility with places like Tesla in California, so if places like Michigan in the Midwest want to be competitive in the global marketplace, you have to attract talent from all over the world,” he said.
This is particularly relevant to the Japanese expatriate community in Novi, many of whom stay longer than originally expected, according to Wolf.
“One thing that’s really unique about Japanese investment is that the people that invest from Japan actually tend to stay here longer than most other foreign nationals,” he said. “Some expats go home, but a lot of them stay here forever, they become naturalized citizens.”
COVID-19 has created some challenges for the fruition of Sakura Novi, however, with some businesses leaving the project after the beginning of the pandemic.
“One of the things that happened during the pandemic is that a lot of our tenant prospects got into dire situations, so they either walked away from the deal or took a pause until they could get their companies back on track,” Kim said.
Despite these challenges, Kim said that the project will continue to move forward. To Kim and others involved in the Sakura Novi project, the success of the development is important for building community around diversity; although Asian populations are underrepresented in the Midwest compared to coastal states like California, Kim said they have an outsized impact on the communities they are a part of.
“Being exposed to Asian culture is very eye opening for people in the Midwest. Unless you come from a family that travels a lot, it’s unlikely that you will have much exposure,” he said.
Ueda expressed excitement regarding the increasing opportunities for Midwesterners to experience these cultural influences.
“Japanese goods are so popular among local people right now, it’s an amazing surprise,” he said. “It’s very good and I’m very glad to see such diversity.”