"Little Tokyo": Japanese Honda Familes Adjust to Life in Ohio

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 28, 2013

MARYSVILLE, OHIO—I am enjoying a box lunch with Jiro Sakamoto and Ben Nakamura, whose day jobs are working for Honda, which has sprawling operations in this part of central Ohio. We’re not eating sushi, but we could be, because we’re in the midst of one of the largest Japanese expatriate communities in the U.S.

The end of the line for Honda Crosstours at the East Liberty plant in Ohio. (Jim Motavalli photo)Honda has two huge assembly plants in Marysville and East Liberty, Ohio. It makes engines in the town of Anna, and transmissions in Russells Point. Since ’82, it’s pumped out more than 15.7 million Hondas, 20 million engines, and nearly 16 million transmissions (they call them “missions” here). Surrounding those sprawling factories, like pilot fish on sharks, are many Tier I to III suppliers of every possible part, including headlights (Stanley Electric US Co.) and seats (TS Tech North America).

Together, these two Japan-based companies employ 2,300 people around Columbus — mostly Americans but many Japanese, too. There were 3,695 Japanese nationals living in central Ohio at last count.

Lunch with Jiro Sakamoto, Honda engineer and language school head. (Jim Motavalli photo)I’m sure Sakamoto, a chief structural engineer at Honda, could tell me a whole lot about what holds a Civic together, but we’re here to talk about something totally different—the Columbus Japanese Language School, which has an amazing 555 students, 37 staffers (two sent from the Japanese Ministry of Education) and 17 board members. The school meets on Saturdays. Its purpose is to keep the many Japanese kids living in Ohio current with their language and able to keep up with the curriculum when, inevitably, they go back to Japan.

For many executives like Sakamoto and Nakamura, the U.S. is a three- to five-year assignment, but hardly a hardship post. There’s a big Japanese community here. One town, Dublin (also home to an Irish festival!) is a magnet for new Japanese arrivals. Akiko Miyamoto of Coldwell Banker, who leases homes to Japanese families in Dublin, tells me that the community is prized because its schools offer full-time Japanese-speaking aides who translate documents, send out e-mail blasts in their language, and act as interpreters at school events. Some Dublin subdivisions have 20- to 30-percent Japanese populations. And you can indeed get good Japanese food in Dublin — strange as that may seem to observers who think of central Ohio as a meat-and-potatoes food desert.

Akiko Miyamoto of Coldwell Banker brought her "sale pending" sign. (Jim Motavalli photo)It’s not just food that's available, either. Hikaru Tokuda is an attorney with Porter Wright Morris and Arthur,  who’s totally at home in both cultures — and is admitted to the bar in both California and Japan. He’s at your service if you want to sort out complicated cross-cultural legal issues, including visas and firing people (believe me, it’s different in Japan). Tanya Crawford at Deloitte’s Columbus office is a specialist in Japanese tax issues. “It takes some getting used to, working here,” she said. “Decision-making at Japanese companies is very consensus-based.”

Tokuda adds that Japanese find it hard to adjust to huge American houses, but they want to immerse themselves in American life so they don’t ask for duplicates of what they had in Kobe or Osaka. Golf is hugely popular for the men, and women bond around volleyball and tennis, as well as that language school (which is largely run by parents).

Deloitte’s Crawford is on the board of the Japan-America Society of Central Ohio (JASCO), and I met for breakfast with its president, Mark Corna, whose huge Corna-Kokosing Construction Company does a lot of business with Honda and other Japanese companies. He’s a regular visitor to Japan for trade missions. Like many Ohioans I met, he seemed genuinely concerned that the Japanese who come to the state have a good experience.

Mark S. Corna: Building bridges to the Japanese community in central Ohio. (Jim Motavalli photo)“It can be a challenge to assimilate and feel comfortable for Japanese here,” said Corna. “Language is the biggest barrier. It’s true that Dublin has an Irish festival and everything is shamrocks, but the city goes out of its way to accommodate the Japanese community.” Don’t miss JASCO’s annual golf outing, and if Japanese-style karaoke is your poison, it’s here, too.

The Japanese companies bring a lot to the table. Honda alone employs more than 10,000 people in the Columbus region. Midwest Express, Jefferson Industries, TS Tech, Stanley Electric and Cardington may sound as Midwestern as a waving field of grain, but they’re all Japanese companies based in Columbus, many with supplier relationships to Honda.

“Ohio’s economy would look so different if it weren’t for Honda,” Corna tells me. “The ripple effects are tremendous.” Yes, it’s Detroit that’s known for making cars, but in the corridors around Columbus, and in nearby Indiana and Kentucky, are mighty engines of automotive commerce: Toyota, Subaru (which is adding 900 jobs in a $400 million expansion) and even more Honda operations. The sleek new Acura NSX? It’s going to be made at the Performance Manufacturing Center here in Ohio beginning in 2015, and its engine at the Anna plant. Being neighborly definitely pays off for the local Columbus economy, which can boast of below-average unemployment rates. Groups like Columbus 2020 tirelessly promote the city as a business destination.

There’s a reason these big auto giants are called “assembly” plants. The parts come in (mostly by truck) from all over, often just in time to go into a car — as is the Japanese way.

Quality control for Honda light assemblies at Stanley Electric U.S. (Jim Motavalli photo)TS Tech (the initials stand for “Tokyo Seat”) in Reynoldsburg has
just turned out its seven-millionth seat, and almost all of them went into Hondas. It’s around 4 p.m., and I point to a big pallet of Accord seats that have just passed through a grueling gauntlet of robot welders and quality checks. “Those will be in a car at 8:30 tomorrow morning,” says Todd Brock, a senior production manager.

Down the road at Stanley in London, Ohio (a company that gets 95 percent of its business from Honda), I see 1,000-ton presses stamp out headlight lenses from resin, then watch them get “metalized” with a reflective coating before final assembly and pallet loading in tractor trailers for the 45-minute ride to Honda. There’s 700,000 square feet of factory, and 18 Japanese employees among the 870 “associates” who’ve absorbed the Japanese way. Does that mean that all the employees wear the same outfit? You betcha, and at Honda, too. Here's a video look at robots painting parts for Stanley:

At Stanley, I saw a lens rejected for an imperfection in the clear molding so small I could barely see it. Honda’s standards get passed down the line.

Back at my lunch with Sakamoto-san and Nakamura-san, I learn that Japanese are required to attend school through junior high, while Americans have to make it to 16. The vagaries of those three- to five-year assignments mean that some Japanese students can end up without a usable school certification from either system. The language school, which also teaches math and social studies, is aimed at easing the re-entry into Japan.

Making energy-efficient CVT transmissions for four-cylinder Accords at Honda Transmission Manufacturing in Russells Point, Ohio. (Jim Motavalli photo) Sakamoto tells me that Japanese executives are focused on their jobs, but if their families are unhappy on their overseas assignments, they’ll get distracted. “If the children are happy, I’m happy, and I can focus on my job, get promoted and my salary increased!” Sakamoto said. Since he’s not only president of the language school but also chief engineer for vehicle structure research at Honda R&D, his family must be very happy.

For some, this place represents more than just a rung on the corporate ladder. Coldwell Banker’s Miyamoto told me of one Japanese family whose scattered assignments kept husband and wife apart for more than 20 years. They finally got together in Ohio, the “Little Tokyo” of the Midwest.

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