Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Employees of Japanese-based companies who make the temporary move to Battle Creek to work for a division of their company in the Fort Custer Industrial Park make their share of sacrifices to be here. And they will be the first to tell you that their spouses and their children give up a lot, too.
Despite being in the United States for three years, Yosuke Natsume, an engineer with automobile parts and accessories manufacturer TRMI, says he and his wife continue to struggle with the English language. Speaking through an interpreter, Natsume says, “At work, I’m doing fine and I converse in English to my co-workers a lot. My wife’s English isn’t so good so it’s harder for her to adjust to being here in Battle Creek and to communicate with people here in English.”
The father of three children in kindergarten, first and fifth grades, Natsume says his eldest child, a daughter, also had challenges communicating when the family first moved here.
“She suffered a lot and experienced the hardest challenges,” Natsume says. “She had friends and wanted to play with them, but since she couldn’t understand the language she didn’t know what to do. Looking at my daughter and seeing how she was suffering was the hardest thing for me.”
It took more than six months for her to become accustomed to the language and culture and from that moment on Natsume says, “she accelerated and has been doing fine ever since and has had no problems communicating with her friends.”
Third grade teacher Jinko Oyake teaching class.
While he is glad about her increased comfort level, he and his wife also are ensuring that she and their other children are keeping up with their peers back home in Japan by enrolling them in the Battle Creek Japanese Saturday School that operates during the school year at Minges Brook Elementary School.
Although the Saturday School, for the most part, follows the public school calendar, its 70 students get the month of July off and attend classes in June and August when the public schools aren’t in session, says Takashi Yoshida, Principal of the Saturday School and a professor in Western Michigan University’s Department of History.
The students, who attend English speaking school during the week, meet every Saturday from 8:45 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. Yoshida said most of his students attend Battle Creek Public Schools with the remaining 30 or so attending school in districts including Kalamazoo, Portage, Coldwater, Jackson, Fort Wayne, Marshall, Parma, Ludington, and Goshen.
The Saturday School was set up in 1980 to teach students in kindergarten through 12th
grade, though there currently are no high school age students in attendance, says Natsume, who serves as president of the Saturday School board. He says the school follows a curriculum provided by the Japanese government that mirrors what students at various age levels in Japan are learning.
“Unlike schools in Japan, we have to teach our students in one day those subjects that are covered in one week of school in Japan, so we use some of the drills. In addition to textbooks, there is a small booklet so that we can provide an effective kind of curriculum without spending too much time,” Natsume says through Yoshida, who served as his interpreter. “If students don’t come to this school, they’ll be farther behind when they go back to Japan.”
The school also administers tests and exams that are designed by a Japanese company for students in Japan. “Japanese students take the same tests so our students are able to see how they’re doing compared to their colleagues in Japan. This also gives their parents a better idea of how their kids are doing here,” Yoshida says.
“It’s a particular challenge for our students who have to do homework during the week and on Saturdays they have to come here and they get lots of homework here too. They probably work harder than their fathers and mothers.”
These Japanese parents often spend lots of time teaching their children English and working with them to make sure they are keeping up with their studies at their American schools.
Admission to the school is open to the children who will be able to study various subjects in Japanese. The school has currently six students who were born in the United States, including Yoshida’s daughter. Now 8-years-old, she began attending the Saturday School at age 3.
At that time, the school had approximately 90 students and its principal was a Japanese citizen sent over by Japan’s Ministry of Education. The school opened with four students in 1980. During the 1990’s the school often had close to 150 students at any given time, Yoshida says.
In the classroom at Saturday School for students who want to keep up with their couterparts in Japan.
After the start of the Great Recession, in 2007, there was an across-the-board dip in the number of Japanese ex-pats being dispatched between 2008 and 2010 to work for a U.S. arm of their companies, says Robert Corder, vice president of Attraction for Battle Creek Unlimited.
“If you could hire someone locally, that was easier,” he says.
This led to the current decline in enrollment at the Saturday School. When the number of students declined to less than 100 students, Yoshida says that the government does not dispatch teachers from Japan, and the school needed to hire someone locally.
“I was asked to do it since my daughter comes here,” he says. “The school is operated through donations mostly from Japanese companies that operate here. Since these companies have donated lots of money to the school, I feel kind of obligated to do some type of labor.”
A monthly tuition fee of $120 per student is charged to further offset the cost of operating the school.
Corder says the idea for the school came about while the Fort Custer Industrial Park was being developed. He says there are currently 19 Japanese companies located there.
“My understanding is when they were setting up the Industrial Park and working to attract Japanese companies, one thing that was noted is that it would be good if Battle Creek had a Saturday school for the children of Japanese employees,” Corder says.
Once these companies had established themselves at Fort Custer, they began a long-standing practice of bringing over employees from their Japanese headquarters to train staff at their Battle Creek locations on the manufacturing processes and procedures used in Japan. These employees stay for between three and five years.
Natsume says the Japanese companies in Battle Creek have found it is more effective to send employees to work alongside their Battle Creek-based counterparts rather than try to communicate via Skype, email or other technologies.
Natsume, who has been with TRMI for 12 years, designs production lines for the company that specializes in electronic toll collection systems that are engineered and assembled in the United States for the enhancement of traffic technology worldwide. Natsume says he was sent to Battle Creek to observe and offer recommendations for improvements that have been implemented.
“What’s common sense in Japan may not be not common sense here in Battle Creek,” Natsume says. “When someone has some kind of issue, there are procedures that every worker in Japan has to follow, but sometimes here in Battle Creek there was no very established fixed procedure that every worker has to follow.”
Yoshida says the mission of employees like Natsume is to set up the same standards in Battle Creek that the company has in Japan.
Students in the class taught by Third grade teacher Jinko Oyake.
In addition to Battle Creek, there are Japanese Saturday Schools in cities throughout Michigan, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Novi. Yoshida says the Novi school has more than 1,000 students.
According to a 2017 Japanese Direct Investment Survey: Summary of Michigan Results prepared by the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit which surveys Japanese-owned facilities and Japanese nationals in Michigan, the top five cities based on Japanese population were: Novi, 3,826; Ann Arbor, 1,915; West Bloomfield, 1,211; Farmington Hills, 711; and Battle Creek, 425.
“There aren’t very many communities of our size that have a Saturday School,” Corder says
Nationally, Yoshida says, every state has one if not more Japanese schools. “Some Japanese schools have people of dual citizenship who are not necessarily sent by Japanese companies,” he says. “They decide to send their kids to study the Japanese language, but here in Battle Creek most parents are sent by Japanese companies.”
The Battle Creek Japanese Saturday School, too, has children of multi-cultural heritages, but “this is not the place to study Japanese,” Yoshida says. “This place is to study the curriculum in Japanese.”
Battle Creek Unlimited's Corder says providing opportunities for the children of these employees to keep up academically removes one of the areas of concern for those relocating to Battle Creek.
“The school is something Battle Creek worked hard to get,” Corder says. “It gave Battle Creek a tool to attract these employees to locate here instead of Kalamazoo or Portage. They like to be here because of the school. As a region, it helps us to attract companies. If they’re looking at Grand Rapids or Fort Wayne as opposed to Battle Creek, they know we have a school where their kids can keep up and that’s important to them.”
Photos by Susan Andress. See more of her work here.