When Joe Watanabe first arrived to the United States from Japan, he was both excited and scared.
His initial experience in New York was not exactly a positive one overall — he described it to be very dangerous when he lived there 30 years ago.
The racist attitudes people held toward him a handful of times simply because he was Japanese, and experiences he had while shopping when employees were not friendly with him were different than he had encountered before.
“In New York, I would go shopping, but the people in the stores were not friendly. In Japan, we had the same language, so even if we don’t know each other, we welcomed (each other). It’s nice communication. But New York, it’s very bad,” Joe said.
He described New York to be a survival society with a lot of crime. Additionally, he had moved to New York without his wife and children, which made him homesick.
“At the time, there was no communication with Japan, no internet, telephone was expensive, no (Japanese) television program … so it was hard,” Joe said.
During this lonely period of time being away from his family, he said he watched a lot of kung fu movies, his favorite being those with Bruce Lee.
However, his wife and children were able to join him in beginning their life in the U.S. a year later.
Eventually, Joe became used to the American lifestyle, especially after moving to Los Angeles. He explained that L.A. was very similar to the big city he had grown up in. Once he was used to the United States, he said he became content and was okay with not going back to Japan. They now live in Central Indiana.
Even still, living in the U.S. did not come without its challenges. He was raising his children in a culture he had not grown up in. His children were attending English-speaking schools, and even though he had learned English in school growing up, it was not his first or most comfortable language.
“I’ve learned with my (children)! Homework (was) very difficult.… Elementary school, the teacher gave them homework, and sometimes my child cried because I cannot help and they cannot understand,” Joe said.
Joe said that it was similar to when he had bought his children Nintendo games and started out by showing them how to do it, but once they reached a certain level of skill, they were able to conquer him. Then, they were the ones teaching Joe.
Joe and his family also began going by nicknames once they moved to the United States. Joe’s real name is actually Kazuo, but said “Joe” is much better and easier.
“Kazuo is a very popular name in Japan! And Watanabe is very popular as well! That’s why for instance when I see the telephone book, Kazuo Watanabe (is shown) over 200 (times)! But same city! So I don’t like my name. … Joe is okay,” he said.
His wife’s real name is Yumiko but she goes by Yumi. His other children, Testuya goes by Ted, Momoya goes by Momo, Yoyoi goes by Dena, and Misaki goes by Missy.
Joe said it’s not only easier for those in the U.S., but easier for him too, because their nicknames are essentially shortened versions of their names.
The Watanabe family still does find ways to celebrate their Japanese culture while living in the United States, though.
For starters, Joe primarily eats Japanese food. He said Yumi is a genius when it comes to cooking. She will even make Japanese food items for him to take in his lunch that he brings to work, his favorite being miso soup. The two of them even attend a Japanese grocery store near Castleton once a week to stock up on Japanese food.
Joe and Yumi also still consider the Japanese New Year to be very important.
“We celebrate New Year’s with food. Japan has a New Year’s dinner, like turkey with Thanksgiving. Same thing. Without that dinner, I cannot celebrate New Year. It’s still (the) old year! I have to eat,” Joe said.
He said that a lot of the food they eat to celebrate the new year is symbolic and special. This includes lotus roots and chestnuts, among others. The lotus root is more symbolic, as it has a hole in it to look through to see the future.
“New Year’s is very important because … if first thing is good, everything is good. So first point is important. That’s why New Year’s is the first day of the year,” Joe said.
They also visit Chicago on a fairly regular basis, as there is a more prevalent Japanese community there than in Indiana. Joe and his wife also have good friends in Chicago he likes to go visit.
While they were living in Chicago, Yumi was very involved in doing flower arrangements and tea ceremonies. Now that they live in Indiana, she is unable to participate in these activities, so she enjoys going back to Chicago to stay involved with her hobbies.
Though Joe loves Indiana, he said he knows his wife misses having Japanese friends and does not enjoy living here.
Eventually, he said they might move back to Japan after he retires. Joe said he misses Japanese food the most, followed by Japan’s hot springs.
Additionally, two of his children, Ted and Missy, live in Japan. Ted is married, has three boys and works for Hitachi. Missy married a Japanese businessman and moved back to Japan, where she is raising twin boys.
In the meantime, he and Yumi continue celebrating their culture while living in Indiana primarily through speaking Japanese, as well as cooking and eating Japanese food. At this point, he said considers himself to be content and satisfied, as he has been able to watch his children grow and start families of their own, and he has been able to pursue a career he loves.
(Joe explains the importance of New Year’s, and becoming satisfied with where he is at in life. Pictured are he and his wife shopping at a Japanese grocery store and preparing Japanese food.)