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Japanese Culture Not Hard to Find, Even in Far-flung Texas

By: Debbie Howard

I spend a good part of every summer these days in a small Texas Hill Country town, 13,000 some-odd miles from Tokyo. Looking out across the buttes, with deer grazing nearby, hummingbirds thrumming their wings, and the occasional armadillo scurrying through the yard, it certainly feels a world apart.

But less than one hour away lies the super-cool metropolis of Austin, which in 2012 topped Forbes’ list of America’s Fastest-growing Cities for the second year in a row. Although Austin has fewer than 1 million population, there
is vibrant evidence of Japanese food as well as both traditional and pop culture.

For example, there are at least 25 sushi restaurants dotted all over town, and AustinSushi.com reports that even during the downturn in 2010–2011, demand is so high that there was only a net loss of two sushi restaurants overall. Moreover, Japanese food options are now branching out to include okonomiyaki, takoyaki and even izakaya-style restaurants.

The Texas Sake Company, the first independently-owned sake maker in the US, celebrated its grand opening in Austin on International Sake Day on October 1, 2011. “the best sake this side of the Pacific,” it builds on Texas’ long tradition as a rice producer, utilizing rice grown from Japanese seed that arrived in Texas over 100 years ago.

Then there’s the Taniguchi Japanese garden at Zilker Botanical Garden. The story goes that Isamu Taniguchi, born in 1897 near Osaka, moved to Austin in the late 60s with his wife to be near their son, after a career in farming in California and the Rio Grande Valley. Working without salary, contract or restrictions, he dedicated 18 months of his life to transforming 3 acres of rugged cliffs and hills into a peaceful and beautiful garden that over 3 million visitors have enjoyed (so far!).

The Japan-America Society of Greater Austin (JASGA) is a nonprofit organization bridging the cultures of Japan and Central Texas through education and cultural programs for its members and the greater Austin community. It’s August 6th program featured Midori Campbell, a second-
generation Japanese living in Austin since 1969, who will present a retrospective of her late mother’s sumie watercolor paintings, which are influenced by the beauty found in native Texas. Artist Mitsuko Hiraizumi was one of a handful of individuals in the US qualified to teach sumie watercolor paintings.

On the pop culture side of things, the anime club at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) has for 24 years provides anime fans with a place to meet, socialize and watch anime, meeting weekly throughout the year. And South by Southwest (SXSW), a unique convergence of original music, indie films and emerging technologies held in March every year since 1987, features a “Japan night” with a lineup of Japanese bands from Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and beyond, with names such as: The Akabane Vulgars on Strong By-pass, Nokies!, ZZZ’s and Vampillia.

What is interesting is that Austin — with a population of under 1 million — flaunts quite a concentration of “things Japanese” which makes me feel right at home, no matter how far away it may sometimes feel. I should also say that the 22nd Annual America-Japan Grassroots Summit, sponsored by the John Manjiro- Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange (CIE) will be held in late August in Dallas, Texas — only four hours away. The Summit is a large-scale meeting of Japan and American citizens, with the purpose of strengthening the peaceful relationship between Japan and America through fostering grassroots friendships. Over 35,000 have attended these Summits over the years.

Debbie Howard is Chairman of CarterJMRN KK, and President Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. She is also a Visiting Professor of marketing at Sophia University.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 13th August 2012

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