Report: Opportunities to Strengthen Japan-Alabama Ties
USJETAA was pleased to co-sponsor an event by the JET Alumni Association Southeast (JETAASE) Alabama subchapter through our Chapter Grant Program funded by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. The event, Opportunities to Strengthen Japan-Alabama Ties, took place at the University of Alabama campus on Sunday, September 15, 2019. It was co-hosted by JETAASE Alabama, Japan-America Society of Alabama, and the University of Alabama and sponsored by USJETAA and Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. The event brought together representatives from the Alabama business community, Japanese organizations, and university departments to increase students’ understanding of U.S.-Japan relations in Alabama and to share future job opportunities at Japanese companies in the region. The event was attended by 42 participants, including students and educators from six universities in Alabama and Mississippi.
The event began with opening remarks by Joy Champaloux (Wakayama, 2009-2012), Program Officer, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA; Raven Mckenzie (Hyogo, 2013-2015), Education Abroad Advisor, University of Alabama and co-leader of JETAASE Alabama sub-chapter; and Jolie Thevenot, Executive Director, Japan-America Society of Alabama (JASA). In addition to introducing their respective organizations, each speaker spoke about their desire to engage more university students in their programming and activities on Japan.
The keynote address was delivered by Honorary Consul of Japan Mark Jackson, who also serves as the CEO and Chairman of Moreson Conferencing, a global teleconferencing service that operates in 65 countries. In his remarks, Jackson highlighted U.S.-Japan ties and contributions in the state of Alabama, as well as shared some recent initiatives to expand Japanese culture and language in the state. Japanese businesses play an influential role in the region, as there are 174 Japanese owned or affiliated firms in Alabama. Japanese companies also have a long history of investment in Alabama, with Daikin recently celebrating their 25th anniversary within the state and marking it with a $200 million expansion in Decatur, Alabama. The largest single Japanese one time investment in US soil happened in 2014 when Daichi purchased a homegrown Birmingham life insurance company for $5.7 billion. According to Jackson, the presence of these large Japanese companies investing in the region encourages local talent to stay, rather than move due to lack of opportunities. He also discussed the important role that sister city ties and cultural exchanges play in enticing the multinational corporations to invest in the state. Alabama has five sister cities with Japan, and recently expanded its Japan Outreach Initiative (JOI) program from one participant to two. Jackson is a firm supporter of the JET Program and noted that Birmingham, AL has fostered at least two participants who have become “Birmingham ambassadors” in Japan.
The first panel discussion focused on perspectives about working with Japanese companies in the United States. Trevin Dye (Tochigi, 1998-2001), Assistant Director of International Business Development at Japan External trade organization (JETRO) Atlanta acted as both moderator and speaker. The other panelists were Charlene Butler, Associate Relations team with Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, and Mark Jackson, Honorary Consul of Japan and CEO of Moreson Conferencing. Dye briefly described JETRO’s purpose in the United States, explaining that JETRO helps American companies open offices in Japan and supports Japanese companies in importing and exporting to the United States. He also mentioned some of the economic and social challenges that Japan is currently undergoing. For example, there is some concern whether people and companies will stay and continue to invest in Japan after the Tokyo Olympics 2020. If they don’t, what sort of problems and gaps might result from this loss of interest? Another issue is that Japan does not have an especially easy or welcoming environment for entrepreneurs. “WeWork”, the shared office and workspace company, is prominent in Japan but many of their tenants are foreign entrepreneurs. There should be more consideration on how Japanese entrepreneurs can be successful in starting new businesses in Japan.
Jackson expanded on some of the themes from his keynote speech, such as the explosive growth of Japanese companies in Alabama over the past six years. In one of the most notable examples, Mazda-Toyota announced a joint venture earlier this year that will result in a new $1.6 billion assembly plant in Huntsville, Alabama. This was an intentional and concerted effort by Alabama to bring this type of investment and change for the community, as other states such as North Carolina were also being considered. It is an example on how a prepared and reputable workforce as well as presence of sister city relationships and organizations like the Japan-America Society of Alabama can draw Japanese companies to the state. Additionally, there is an interest to add Japanese language to the K-12 educational curriculum.
Butler’s remarks emphasized this point, where she noted that a JETRO survey found Japanese companies’ top concern in the United States is finding right workers for jobs. These companies seek hard skills like engineering and analysis experience, but also soft skills such as excelling in a team environment, selling yourself, and the ability to balance multiple priorities. Specifically, Honda is interested in adaptability, a skill learned by those employed as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, as the auto industry will be undergoing significant changes over the next ten years more than it has over the last sixty. Successful candidates will need to be able to adapt to this change. Additionally, she noted that real world experience and having held down a job is more important than one’s GPA. To build candidates’ professional experience, Honda offers co-op and internship program for community college, university, and post-graduate students.
In the subsequent Q&A, one educator asked about how to respond to questions or concerns about Japanese work culture as some students have heard stories about the prevalence of overworking and suicides in Japan. Butler responded that Honda is a Japanese company, but it is pretty Americanized. It’s more often that the Japanese counterparts and workers have to adapt to American culture rather than the other way around. Jackson seconded this notion and expressed that has not really noticed the Japanese concept of “salaryman” in his interactions with Japanese companies. Honda, Daikin, and other Japanese companies in Alabama have done a good job at integrating the two cultures and not imposing Japanese expectations on their American counterparts. Dye also agreed with this notion, and stressed that expectations have been related for those who chose that they don’t want to follow this “salaryman” expectation.
The second panel discussion focused on opportunities to gain international experience in Japan. Panelists included Raven McKenzie, Education Abroad Advisor at the University of Alabama and co-leader of the JETAASE Alabama sub-chapter; Mellissa Takeuchi (Hyogo, 2004-2009), Special Assistant at the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta; and Valerie Stewart (Saga, 1999-2002), Treasurer of JETAASE and Vendor/Marketing coordinator at John Paul. Jolie Thevenot, Executive Director, Japan-American Society of Alabama, moderated the discussion. To begin, each panelist introduced themselves, their JET Program experience, and their post-JET career path which they all have taken different turns. Following their self-introductions, McKenzie described her department at the University of Alabama, which specifically assists business students looking to study abroad through university programs or participate in a partnerships with Japanese companies.
Takeuchi described the JET Program, its history as a Japanese government sponsored program that was founded 33 years ago, and gave an overview of its application process. Currently, over 55 countries participate in the program and there are 1,100 JETs from the United States with over 70,000 alumni worldwide. In addition to offering three types of positions (ALT, CIR, and SEA), the JET Program provides return airfare, benefits, salary, and housing assistance to selected participants. To be considered, students need a four year bachelor by the time they leave for Japan, be flexible and opened minded, and have a genuine in interest in Japan, teaching, and children. Successful applicants usually have international experience or teaching experience, but it is not required. She also stressed that the JET Program is an actual job with respective expectations, and that it is not a study abroad program.
As a representative of someone who does not currently work for a Japanese company, Stewart discussed the transferrable skills she acquired while working on the JET Program. For example, she learned to be flexible in the workplace and developed her capacity to take on different projects, tasks, and roles. She also learned how to work and communicate in an international setting. In her role as Treasurer of JETAASE, she helps prepare outgoing JETs for the work and culture they will soon experience in Japan, as well as supports returnee JETs by providing resources for them to reconnect. She is also involved in Japanese cultural events like the Atlanta JapanFest, which helps spread the word about the JET Program.
During the Q&A, students expressed interest in the opportunities the JET Program could provide them. Takeuchi commented that JET Program gives you the chance to assimilate into the community and get really involved outside the classroom with students, local teachers, neighbors. The JET Program provides training before leaving for Japan, as well as throughout the program. Overall, the speakers agreed that the JET Program advanced their personal lives by changing their career trajectory, instilling a desire to show people the other communities in the world, and opening their eyes to the experiences of minorities in their communities.
The program concluded with closing remarks from Ingrid Galinat (Toyama, 2000-2001) Assistant Director, International Programs at The University of West Alabama and co-leader of JETAASE Alabama subchapter. There was also a short Japanese business etiquette demonstration by Yoko Minami, Japanese Outreach and Initiative (JOI) coordinator at the University of West Alabama, who demonstrated the correct way to exchange business cards at Japan. There was also a light meal and networking session, where students practiced handing out meishi (business cards) the way they would in Japanese setting.
The event was organized by co-leaders Ingrid Galinat and Raven McKenzie of the JETAASE Alabama Sub-chapter, along with Jolie Thevenot, the Executive Director of JASA. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and the U.S. Japan Exchange & Teaching Program Alumni Association (USJETAA) funded this program.
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