How Toyota Helped Create A Thriving Japanese Food Culture In Kentucky

At Ayame’s Japanese market, owner Akemi Eguchi examined the contents of one of the freezers – the one hidden behind imported DVDs and rice cookers. She identifies kidney bean candy, melon bread (“Famous with American anime kids,” she notes), pickled vegetables and daikon radish.

Spread around the store, a few more coolers are filled with the skins of freshly cut dumplings, fish and meat. Then there are four short aisles filled with brightly colored candy, hair products, curries, thin packets of instant miso soup, and tea.

But this store is not in an alleyway in Tokyo. It is tucked away in a shopping mall in southeast Lexington.

“People tell me it’s a very small store, but you’ve organized everything well, a bit of everything,” Eguchi said, avoiding a pyramid of bags of rice near the cash register. “They say it’s like a small version of a grocery store in Japan. I think that’s a big compliment.”

A small Japanese grocery store in a college town in central Kentucky isn’t as out of place as you might think. Since opening Ayame four years ago, Eguchi says her clientele has grown steadily. And it all started because a Toyota manufacturing plant moved to near Georgetown about 30 years ago, creating demand for Japanese products and food from here.

“When I first moved to Lexington 28 years ago there wasn’t much to choose from; I was homesick for food,” Eguchi said as she started calling. the contents of a customer’s basket. “But now, not so much.”

When Toyota came to Kentucky

In 1985, the president of the Japanese company Toyota Motor Corporation, Shoichiro Toyoda, announced that Georgetown, Ky., Would become the location of the company’s first manufacturing plant in the United States.

“When Toyota moved here, the whole economic development industry looked at whether a Japanese company could be successful in the United States, let alone Georgetown,” said David Carpenter, executive director of the Japan / America Society. of Kentucky. Today, the United States has Toyota manufacturing plants in 10 American cities, including San Antonio, Texas; Huntsville, Alabama; and Blue Springs, Mississippi, to name a few.

Toyota’s success in Kentucky prompted other Japanese-run companies to quickly establish themselves in the region.

“When Toyota came in I think we had four or five Japanese companies and now we have 206. [Japanese] businesses in Kentucky, so the population of the Japanese community exploded, more or less, “says Carpenter.” And when they first landed here, and in numbers, it was very difficult to get Japanese food. . “

Just as the Japanese immigrants wanted to taste at home, the new American workforce was eager to try the foods of Japan, especially after many of them visited the country as part of their training.

“So the Kentuckians who went to Japan also tasted real Japanese food, and when they got home – like everyone else – you want to share that experience with your friends and family,” says Carpenter.

Restaurants from traditional to modern

Remember, this cultural exchange started long before there was sushi available in any local supermarket. And the authentic restaurant food was hard to find.

Tachibana, considered the region’s first authentic Japanese restaurant, has been operating in Lexington for approximately 25 years. It looks like a traditional Japanese house with post and beam construction, although two chain motels have opened on either side.

“I think Tachibana was originally designed for the comfort of [the] The Japanese who are here, ”says Carpenter. “And then it took everyone here. For many years, they also had a Japanese market. He was really one of the first. “

Since then, Japanese restaurants and markets keep popping up.

“We are still seeing this boom in Japanese restaurants after that initial economic investment in the 1980s,” he says.

In downtown Lexington, a trendy bank building turned sushi restaurant called School recently opened.

“You know, like a school of fish,” says owner Tomoka Logan, explaining the restaurant’s name as she walks past the sushi counter.

Logan has been in Lexington for 18 years. Born in Tokyo, she and her husband moved after being offered a job at the Toyota factory. She vividly remembers the first time she ate in Tachibana, which was the location of her first job interview in the city.

“It was my first sushi since I moved to America,” says Logan. “I remember how good the sushi was, but I don’t remember anything from the interview.”

Several years later, she opened the school’s first location. Then, after eight years of activity, she had the opportunity to move to a more central building in the city center and brought two Japanese chefs with her.

“Since we have a large Japanese community in town, and I just wanted to share some real Japanese [food] with everyone, ”Logan said, gesturing to two tables in the corner of the restaurant.

On one there is a family telling jokes in Japanese, on the other there is a couple ordering drinks in English.

It’s business and it’s personal

While there are currently many Japanese restaurants and markets in central Kentucky, JASK and Toyota continue to make concerted efforts to connect immigrants and visitors to Japan with food that will make them feel at home.

According to Toyota’s Menke, there is a healthy dose of orientation before new workers move out.

“But once they move out, there’s a woman who works here where it’s basically her job,” says Menke, “To help foster their business and give them the necessary orientation of geography, different parts. of the community and how they can better integrate. “

JASK has something similar.

“What we provide is a real thick Japanese booklet that we produce called ‘A Welcome Guide to Kentucky’,” Carpenter explains. “It’ll tell you things like how to get a driver’s license, how the traffic works here – because it’s totally different in Japan – but a lot of it is where the restaurants are, where you can grab a bite to eat. – traditional Japanese lunch and that sort of thing. “

Part of that awareness, Carpenter says, is that it’s just good business sense for the state – 47% of all foreign investment in the state comes from Japan.

But there is also an emotional aspect to the cultural and culinary exchange.

“The goal of the Japan / America Society is to bridge a gap between these two cultures,” Carpenter said. “Japan is one of our most important allies. My son, when he first heard the word “ally” several years ago, he asked what it meant, and I said “friend”. “

Carpenter continues, “So he asked, ‘Oh, so Japan is our friend?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, he’s one of our best friends.’ “

And, Carpenter adds, it’s always nice to share a meal with friends.

Copyright 2018 Louisville Public Media. To learn more, visit Louisville Public Media.

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