Meet Rio Saito, the Executive Director of the Japan America Society of Minnesota (JASM). JASM is one of 38 such organizations across the US that belong to the National Association of Japan-America Societies. The goals of JASM are to promote mutual understanding, collaboration, and respect between the US and Japanese citizens. The Japanese government and many communities are curious to learn more about what North Dakota has to offer.
Saito explains that in this current environment, we see communities dividing, and differences can be scary. “JASM wants to take those feelings down, and show you something new, and really have fun with you. We have so many opportunities to learn and bring both cultures together.” In recent months, JASM has embraced digital platforms to connect with members and promote ties between the two cultures. They continue to offer business programming, meet and greets, and events like their recently completed spring festival Shinshunkai. The event hosted cooking and kimono demonstrations, performances by Damien “Nijya” D’Luxe, a Japanese drag king; the rock band Kazha; and ballet dancer Yuki Tokuda. Keeping activities like this going helps people still feel like they have a community, and JASM wanted to provide opportunities to relax and have fun through the virtual platform.
“Planting seeds for the future,” Saito says, “is the goal of JASM, and we have several programs to engage people and businesses at every level.” They sponsor a local J-Quiz competition, where high school students compete with their Japanese knowledge and language skills. The winner goes on to compete in Washington, DC for the National Japan Bowl. Next, the Mondale Scholarship, named after former vice president Walter Mondale who served as the US Ambassador to Japan in 1993-96, supports undergraduate students interested in expanding their knowledge of Japan. JASM also offers college students internship opportunities. For professionals, the experience continues with informal conversational language gatherings, business meetings covering various topics, and cultural activities.
For North Dakota, JASM wants to expand programming beyond Minnesota borders and show how meaningful a community like this can be. “I hope there will be a group formed in ND similar to JASM, and we can show them how to do it so that people who are interested [in Japan] have a place to get together and explore. That would be wonderful,” explains Saito.
With much interest from the Japanese government in the Dakotas, it is an excellent opportunity to become more familiar and build connections with our Japanese friends. With the digital environment we are now adapting to, it has become much easier to collaborate and make these types of connections. JASM is a piece of that bridge for the future.