Georgetown, Kentucky is home to Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK), Toyota’s largest manufacturing plant in the world. Out of Georgetown’s roughly thirty-thousand people, nearly a third are employed by TMMK, more than the next twenty top employers in Georgetown combined. But while the economic connections serve as the foundation of this relationship, its roots spread much further.
In 1988, as TMMK began production, the mayor of Georgetown visited Tahara City in Aichi Prefecture, Japan to discuss the formation of a sister city relationship. Two years later, a sister city relationship was formally established, paving the way for deeper connections and joining the now eight sister partnerships between Kentucky and Japan. Georgetown residents can now enjoy the Yuko-En Kentucky Japanese Friendship Garden, an example of Japanese architecture and botanical design. Children can experience the Georgetown Kite Festival, inspired by Tahara’s own festival. Students at Scott County High School have the opportunity to study Japanese for their foreign language requirement.
I was one of those students, and Georgetown’s connections to Japan still impact my life now twelve years later. I knew very little about Japan, but these classes and the dedication of my teacher introduced me to Japan, its culture, and its people. I had the opportunity to study abroad in Tahara, and fell in love with Japan. After high school, I studied international relations at Center College, a small school in Danville, KY, where I continued to study Japanese. I saw this special connection in Danville as well. Like Georgetown, it had its roots in economic ties, this time in the form of the Japanese company Denyo.
After graduating, I moved to Nagano Prefecture to teach English with the JET Program – a Japanese government-sponsored program that brings Americans and other English speakers to Japan to teach. The initiative is meant to not only improve Japanese students’ English, but give Japanese students exposure to different cultures and people. I lived in a very small town and taught at three different schools in the area. It was strange sometimes to consider how a high school student from rural Nagano was practicing their English with a recent graduate from the middle of Kentucky. Now, as I pursue graduate studies, I am even more dedicated to the relationships between the United States and Asia.
Now, not everyone from Georgetown or Kentucky will feel as deep of a connection to Japan or Asia. But, we are often impacted and connected in ways we may not even realize. It may come in the form of business ties, such as the $1.4 billion worth of exports from Kentucky to Japan and the more than 8,000 Kentucky jobs supported by these exports. It may our exposure to language classes, movies, festivals, or many other forms of culture. Or, it may be through meeting someone from someplace different and forming a lasting friendship. However we may interact with Japan, it’s important to realize that the relationship does matter. These cross-cultural connections help us understand one another better and build a strong foundation of friendship. By building these friendships, we have others to share ideas with, work together, and ultimately solve the problems we can’t on our own.
Kyle Bezold is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a graduate student at American University studying International Affairs.
[Image: Richmond Register/Ronnie Ellis]