“We Should Learn Both”: On Teaching Japanese in Small-town Ohio

Akiko Kawano Jones is teaching professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University, where she has been teaching Japanese language and culture courses for 40 years. She shared with Midstory her experience as a foreign language teacher and how her perceptions of Japanese and American cultures have evolved into what they are today. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Drishti Bansal for Midstory.

This story is part of “Asian in Ohio,” an interactive gallery exploring the landscape of Ohio and the Asian and Asian American individuals who call it home through narratives, data, mapping and film.

Hailing from Nishinomiya, Japan, Akiko Kawano Jones came to the United States in 1970.

She studied as a graduate student at Bucknell University, where she soon began teaching as an assistant in the Japanese program. She also taught at a local Pennsylvania high school, loving the whole experience so much that she stayed for years longer than she had originally intended. 

“I loved it and they wanted me to stay,” Kawano Jones said. “So I just told my parents I would like to stay another year, and another year, and then ended up [staying] for four years.”

Then Kawano Jones got married and moved with her husband to Tuba City, a town on a Native American reservation in Arizona, where she taught English to classes of mainly Navajo and Hopi children. There she faced a similar quandary:

“I fell in love, actually, being the teacher for the Indian children. So, I was the one asking my husband to stay another year,” Kawano Jones said.

When she eventually made her way to Bowling Green, Ohio, and started teaching at BGSU in 1983, she brought her passion with her. She would teach there for the next 40 years, building up a base of appreciation for Japanese culture with her students, starting with the basics. 

“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. That was it,” Kawano Jones said. “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 one of their favorite ones.”

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At around the same time Kawano Jones was teaching, interest in Japanese language and culture was beginning to rise in Ohio, likely as a result of the construction of Honda motorcycle and auto manufacturing plants in Marysville in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  

“I think in Ohio, because of Honda, a lot of students started to pay attention to Japanese programs,” Kawano Jones said. “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.”

Even as Kawano Jones was teaching her students to appreciate the language and the culture behind it, she herself was learning, perceiving her heritage in a new light. 

“When you go to other countries, you really learn how wonderful your own country is,” she said. “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.”

Now, having spent most of her life in the United States, Kawano Jones is a proponent of supporting both Japanese culture and American culture in accord with one another; although she feels her role as a Japanese teacher aligns more closely with Japanese cultures and values, she proudly acknowledges her American side as well. 

“Right now I’m trying to take the best of each one,” Kawano Jones said. “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,” she said.

Kawano Jones’ classes embody Japanese culture beyond academic learning. In the classroom, students follow the Japanese customs of greeting and bowing, and outside the classroom, she pushes them to immerse themselves in cultural events and experiences that she organizes, from Japanese calligraphy to tea ceremony demonstrations. Since 2002, Kawano has also brought BGSU students to Japan every summer — with the exception of the pandemic years from 2020-2022 — introducing them to peace studies and building new friendships across the world. 

Although she retired in 2021, Kawano Jones remains an active presence on campus as an advisor of the Japanese Club and by contributing to outreach for cultural events and festivals. Such activities include the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, a celebration spurred by the campus’ collection of gifted cherry trees from alumni in Tokyo and a local Japanese company, as well as from cuttings of the cherry trees given to Washington D.C. from Tokyo in 1912.

The blooming of the trees celebrates the ways that the small town of Bowling Green is not isolated at all, but rather an intersection of cultures in a seemingly unlikely place. This Japanese-American blend continues to bring people together — in more ways than one.

“Believe it or not, there are so many couples — international marriages — you wouldn’t believe it,” Kawano Jones said. “It’s nice: They are just married because of the Japanese program —  because of the international ideas.”

And Kawano continues to be inspired by a growing mutual understanding between cultures.

“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?” Kawano Jones said. “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.”

You can read a selected transcript from Akiko Kawano Jones’ interview here and explore other stories from this series here. “Asian in Ohio” is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Equity & Access Initiative Fund of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation.

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