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Immigrant Stories: Japan

Kikue Atkins, Japanese Immigrant

Kikue Atkins left Japan to settle in America with her husband in 1969. Arriving in New York City, she set about integrating herself into the Japanese-American community. A city girl by birth, NYC seemed calmer compared to her native Tokyo. Three years later, she followed her husband to St. Louis for his job.

Kikue soon became involved in Ikebana International, a Japanese flower arranging organization. Kikue considers herself lucky that she knew some English when she arrived in the US because English is taught in Japan, but many Japanese immigrants have difficulty speaking English even if they can read and write it. This can make it very difficult for them to live in America. To help solve the problem, Kikue founded the Japanese-American Society Women’s Association, which gives women a place to practice their conversation skills and learn idioms. She also became involved in the Japanese-American Citizens League, which is where she met George Sakaguchi, the president of the International Institute at the time. Next thing she knew she was an Institute board member.

The Institute was small back then, Kikue remembers, mentioning that they had to put a bucket under the leaks in the original building when it rained. Over the years she watched it grow into an influential organization, capable of bringing different groups of people together. Kikue met many different people with many different backgrounds over the course of her time with the Institute. Perhaps the most important thing that the International Institute brings to its clients, Kikue believes, is the compassion of its employees and volunteers as seen in the tireless work to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees in St. Louis.

Facts about Japan

Japan opened its ports after signing the Treaty of Kanagawa with the US in 1854 and began to intensively modernize and industrialize. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan became a regional power that was able to defeat the forces of both China and Russia. It occupied Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), and southern Sakhalin Island. In 1931-32 Japan occupied Manchuria, and in 1937 it launched a full-scale invasion of China. Japan attacked US forces in 1941 – triggering America’s entry into World War II – and soon occupied much of East and Southeast Asia. After its defeat in World War II, Japan recovered to become an economic power and an ally of the US. While the emperor retains his throne as a symbol of national unity, elected politicians hold actual decision-making power. Following three decades of unprecedented growth, Japan’s economy experienced a major slowdown starting in the 1990s, but the country remains an economic power. In March 2011, Japan’s strongest-ever earthquake, and an accompanying tsunami, devastated the northeast part of Honshu island, killed thousands, and damaged several nuclear power plants. The catastrophe hobbled the country’s economy and its energy infrastructure, and tested its ability to deal with humanitarian disasters. Prime Minister Shinzo ABE was reelected to office in December 2012, and has since embarked on ambitious economic and security reforms to improve Japan’s economy and bolster the country’s international standing.

Population: 126,168,156 (July 2018 est.)

Location: Eastern Asia, island chain between the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, east of the Korean Peninsula

Languages: Japanese

Religions: Shintoism 70.4%, Buddhism 69.8%, Christianity 1.5%, other 6.9% (2015 est.)

Ethnic Groups: Japanese 98.1%, Chinese 0.5%, Korean 0.4%, other 1% (includes Filipino, Vietnamese, and Brazilian) (2016 est.)

Information from the CIA World Factbook