30 Years, 30 Stories: Becoming Family


2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

Have you bonded with one person in Japan so much that you became family? For our second installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 1990-91 alum David Stott, and learn how his time at Sugimoto’s helped cement his love of Japan.

From professional aspirations to a love of Japan

When I was in college, I did 2 internships at Mazda Motor Manufacturing America, which was a Joint Venture with Ford Motor Co., in Flat Rock, Michigan. Being a brand-new plant, there were many Japanese associates working there. In fact, in the Plastics & Paint Shop where I worked, in a team of 30 people, half of them were Japanese. So, every meeting, every drawing, every joke was all in Japanese and I could not understand a word of it. So, I decided to try to learn Japanese by hanging out with the interpreters and studying on my own with very little success.

3 years later, I would have the opportunity to study at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU). Following that school year at JCMU, I was invited to Hiroshima to a wedding of a former Mazda colleague. There, I gave a speech at the wedding in Japanese in front of 250 people and many of my old co-workers. I do not know who was more amazed, them or me.

It may sound like a cliché, but my JCMU experience changed my life forever. Prior to experiencing JCMU, my end goal was to simply add Japanese language to a Plastics Engineering degree to find a good job when I graduated. But after working for a few years, my goals changed significantly. I no longer cared about learning Japanese for professional gain but rather to maintain the friendships that I had made while living in Hikone. I even left companies when my job did not allow me to utilize my Japanese language skills.

Cultural exchange through food

At JCMU, we would have locals from Hikone come to the center for cultural exchange and Japanese/English Language practice. Nothing formal and sometimes they would bring guitars, and play. Other times, Keith, the head chef at a 5-star Japanese Inn (Hakkeitei-Ryoukan) would bring his leftovers and cook us a meal like we had never tasted before. The smell of his cooking would fill the JCMU hallways and many other students would stop in to see literally what was “cookin’.” Many times it was some exotic form of okonomiyaki with duck, squid, or fresh shrimp as the main ingredient. Other times is was an incredible fried rice or soup dish. We even had some professors from JCMU pop in to “monitor” the situation and have a bite.

However, the best experience I had in Hikone as a student was my time at Sugimoto’s. Our JCMU class was the second group of students in 1990 and when I attended orientation, I heard stories of this restaurant and the locally famous Sugimoto family. I knew that I had to meet them. I did meet them, we became friends instantly and whenever I go back, it’s like I never left.

Sugimoto’s was a small “dive” sushi bar (Now re-modeled and the sushi bar is gone) and restaurant that was built in 1670. They had a small sushi counter and 3 tables in the main dining area, all with bar stools and 3 tatami rooms opposite the kitchen. One tatami room could seat 70 people and they often hosted parties there for Shiga University and/or local businesses.

Many of my classmates did not like it because of the dogs and cats that lived in the kitchen and because the place was so old. But I loved it.

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The standard procedure at Sugi’s was to grab your own drink from a cooler in the hallway, typically a Japanese 22 oz. beer and a glass. You then entered the dining area and poured anyone a beer that needed some, many times killing your entire bottle. Then, before you could set down your empty, there would be four others offering to pour you a beer. And that cycle repeated often. At the end of the night, it was the honor system and you paid for whatever you ate and drank.

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My relationship with Sugimoto’s

Sometimes we would stand in the kitchen watching Sugimoto-san or his wife, Okaa-san (mother in Japanese), cook. One extremely busy night, I was standing in the kitchen, watching them cook when Mrs. Sugimoto came to me and asked me for help. She did not speak English and I did not speak any Japanese yet but when she handed me an apron and took me over to the sink to wash my hands, I had a feeling I was about to go to work. She gave me a knife, and a head of cabbage and showed me how to cut it. Then an onion, carrots, green pepper and some pork. Next thing I know, I am making a dish called yasai itame (basically stir fried veggies with some pork and topped with oyster sauce). That night, I probably made it 40 times. Later I learned that a part-time worker had no-showed (which was very common) so they were slammed in the kitchen.

The next week, the same thing happened, she handed me an apron, I went and washed my hands and learned 3 more dishes. Soon, I was working there every weekend. The problem was that I could not allow them to pay me as I had accepted a position with a company upon my return from Japan and in the agreement, it stated that I could not be employed or make any income while I was living in Japan. This was very difficult for the Sugimotos to understand and I could not explain it, so we negotiated a contract with basic English and hand gestures that I would work for free but also eat and drink for free anytime at their restaurant. This was the best employment offer I ever received. So, I would go there on the weekends and cook, help set up for parties, wash dishes afterward and always have a great Japanese meal compliments of Sugimoto’s.

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At Thanksgiving, Sugimoto-san reached out to a U.S. military base and bought 7 turkeys to make all the culture-shocked JCMU students a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings. It was truly amazing being 7,500 miles from home and eating a traditional American meal that was a taste from home. Sugimoto-san had to find oversized appliances as the turkeys were too big for typical Japanese ovens, but somehow he pulled it off.

Stott (6)To say that the Sugimoto’s and I had bonded was an understatement. We had become family. As the year was winding down, I had an idea to make up some T-shirts to give the Sugimotos as a farewell token and also as a memento of our Japan adventure for my fellow students. I contacted a local T-shirt maker and designed some that had a sketch of Sugimoto-san’s face on the left chest, and Sugi’s full menu in Japanese (Hiragana) on the back. In English, I added, “Delivered anywhere in the world in 30 Minutes or less or it is FREE.” I shared my shirt idea with the students and staff members at JCMU and everyone wanted one so I ordered a ton of shirts.

During the closing ceremonies, I was honored to present the Sugimoto family with their T-shirts, one for each family member and a few extras. As they were opening their wrapped presents, I gave the “Signal.” Simultaneously, every single person at the ceremony removed their jacket or sweatshirt and was wearing a Sugimoto T-shirt. Even 8-month-old Ryuu Teramoto had on his modified version. When the Sugimoto family realized what was happening they were amazed. Otoo-san (Father in Japanese) and I locked eyes, he dropped down on one knee and I saw the tears in his eyes. At that point I knew I got him out of love and pure Japanese style.

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Soon after when it was almost time to return to the U.S., Sugi’s threw me an employee farewell party inviting all the locals and customers I had gotten to know. It was pretty much a typical Saturday night but we ate nabe and some other delicious things that people brought. But at that party, they presented me with an envelope full of 1,000 yen bills. Yes, payment for every hour I had ever worked. So, I worked all year, ate and drank for free all year, they paid me anyway and there was nothing I could do about it. I had to accept and was speechless.

My hectic (and exciting) life after JCMU

Later, four of my best friends took me to the airport to return home. I remember that I was late getting to the plane and as I tried to board, the immigration police approached me and escorted me into a special room for questioning. Apparently, my one year visa had expired the day before and I had to renew it for 90 days even though I was on my way out of the country. I had to pay a fine and held up 429 passengers until my paperwork was complete. I was the last guy on the plane, stressed out and seeing all the dirty looks from passengers that were waiting on me did not help things. I found my window seat and was doing pretty well until I gazed out the window and saw my four buddies, standing on the observation deck, waving to me. This was when the reality hit that I was leaving Japan and did not know when or if ever I would return.  It hit me hard and I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for hours. Flight attendants tried to offer help but there was nothing they could do to fix a broken heart. I returned from Japan a changed man. For days, weeks and months, my heart ached. Although now under control, that feeling has lasted for 20+ years and motivates me every single day.

After 1 year at JCMU and a summer intensive language program at ICU in Tokyo, I tested into 4th year Japanese at U of M. Working full-time, I negotiated with my employer and would go into work early and stay late so that I could go to U of M to attend day classes there, several days a week. I did this for 2 years.

In November, I was getting married and 3 friends I met at JCMU came over from Hikone to attend my wedding. Of course Sugimoto-san and his family were invited but he was deathly afraid of airplanes and would only travel by boat at that time so he did not attend. I was working full time and getting married and had finals all at the same time.

I went to the airport to pick up my guests but then had to go straight to U of M for my Japanese Language final but with 2 Japanese guys with me. They sat in the back of the room as I took my Japanese final exam. All the students thought I was crazy. The professor, Aizawa-sensei was not impressed that I brought two natives to my Japanese final, but he tolerated my request given that this was their first trip to the U.S., neither of them spoke English, and I was getting married in 3 days. 2 years later, as fate would have it, Aizawa-sensei would find himself in Hikone as a lead teacher of Nihongo at JCMU. He too, fell in love with Sugimoto’s, and the two stowaways I brought into his class became some of his closest friends. Hayashi-san has since passed away from pancreatic cancer, but Kotani-san and Takenaka-san are still going strong.

In August 2007, I was fortunate enough to bring my family to Japan for 3 weeks. We visited Gunma Prefecture, Yokohama and of course Hikone. It was extremely hot, but there were many festivals and things to see and do. My family enjoyed Japan and it was a great trip.

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My continued life with Japan

My favorite Japanese proverb is “Saru mo ki kara ochiru,” which means “Even monkeys fall from trees.” Reminding me to always be humble and committed to being better, every single day.

Fast forward to today. I have worked for companies in positions that required me to use my Japanese and I use my Japanese daily in my job as a Program Manager at Yazaki North America. I have not only been able to maintain my Japanese but improve my level of fluency. Of course kanji will always be a challenge but I keep chipping away at them. As anyone who studies Japanese knows, native Japanese are very kind and complimentary to anyone who attempts to learn their language. My job requires me to travel to Japan, Mexico, Indonesia and Vietnam. Unfortunately, I do not speak any other languages but can communicate in Japanese to the bilingual staff locally and it works very well. Last year was my 40th trip to Japan since returning from JCMU. I am very fortunate to be able to get back to Hikone and plan on going back there again this April.

What started as a study abroad gig at JCMU that would look good on a resume transformed into a lifetime passion and appreciation of the food, the culture, and the people from Japan. I always knew the culture was different, but having the chance to experience it as a “Gaijin” impacted me deeply. Where it ends, no one knows for sure, but I am thankful for some of the greatest gifts of friendship I have ever received that started so far away and so long ago.

To anyone who is considering JCMU, you will be embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. Hikone, Shiga, Japan is a small lakeside village close enough to the big cities but far enough away to allow you to “embed” in the community and culture. Embrace it with an open mind and heart and take time to enjoy the ride.

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