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Yoko Hatakeyama: Bringing Kentucky to Japan For More than Twenty Years

by: Jeffrey L. Richey, Chair of Asian Studies Department, Berea College

In Japan, Kentucky is perhaps most associated with its fast-food avatar, KFC. Ever since 1974, when the Louisville-based brand (then known as Kentucky Fried Chicken) launched its phenomenally successful “Kentucky for Christmas” advertisement campaign in Japan, a bucket of KFC fried chicken has become part of the imagery of Christmas for many Japanese, who may not realize that “My Old Kentucky Home” (often sung or played in 1970s and ‘80s Japanese commercials for KFC) is not a traditional Yuletide carol.

But in Japan’s ancient capital city of Nara, where KIIS Japan has been taking students since 2000, and elsewhere on the KIIS Japan itinerary, Kentucky also has become associated with bright young Americans who are eager to explore Japanese culture. For more than twenty years, families in the Nara area have been welcoming KIIS students to stay with them for weeklong homestays, and in the process, a great many gifts from Kentucky artisans, distillers, and musicians have made their way into Japanese homes. It is not unusual for young Kentuckians studying in Nara through KIIS to be accosted at tourist sites, or in Nara’s vast public deer park, by Japanese who are eager to sing a few lines of “My Old Kentucky Home” to their bewildered visitors. All of this is due to the tireless dedication of Professor Yoko Hatakeyama of Murray State University (MSU), who established the KIIS Japan program in 2000 and continues to make Japan available to students from Kentucky and elsewhere, summer after summer.

Professor Hatakeyama is no ordinary academic. Having spent half of her life outside of Japan in her adopted home state of Kentucky, she brings a wealth of cross-cultural experience and a diverse employment background to her work in building bridges between Japan and the Commonwealth. Prior to her decision to come to the United States and become a Japanese language educator, Professor Hatakeyama spent time performing as a dancer and working as a flight attendant. In the latter position, she frequently visited India. Later in life, she became involved with Spanish language and culture, and has spent a considerable amount of time acquiring fluency in Spanish and visiting Spanish-speaking countries and places. Born in the postwar years, when Japan was deeply engaged in the work of rebuilding itself and finding a new, peaceful place in the world, Hatakeyama-sensei (as generations of students have called her) seems to have absorbed some of that era’s intense optimism, cosmopolitan outlook, and formidable work ethic. Noticing that financial need often is the greatest obstacle to study abroad for Kentucky students, she singlehandedly lobbied Japanese corporations with investments with Kentucky to win scholarship support for her MSU students to go to Japan, both with KIIS and through MSU’s exchanges with Japanese universities. Since 2010, she has secured more than $50,000 in MSU student scholarships from Sekisui Chemical Company, Ltd., a Nara-based plastics manufacturer that maintains offices and factories all over the United States, including Kentucky. Without such generous aid, it is doubtful that many of the hundreds of students whom she has brought to Japan would have been able to make the journey.

In 2019, Professor Hatakeyama was recognized by the Consulate-General of Japan in Nashville, Tennessee for her tremendous contributions toward building Japanese and American relations. Upon receiving this honor, she said, “The award is not only for me, but also for my students. I am especially proud of my students who have achieved their goals and have been bridging the two different cultures of Japan and the U.S. through their professions, both in the U.S. and Japan.” It certainly is true that many of Hatakeyama-sensei’s former students have gone on to develop deep connections with Japan, whether as K-12 English instructors in the Japanese government’s highly competitive Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, professionals employed by Japanese firms or by U.S. companies in Japan, or as artists, musicians, and video game designers engaged in interpreting Japan through their creative work. But it is not only students who have benefited from Professor Hatakeyama’s efforts as a cultural bridge-builder.

Part of KIIS’ mission is to extend faculty development opportunities to professors at its member institutions by enabling them to participate in KIIS programs overseas. Hatekayama-sensei’s encouragement of faculty who were not necessarily trained in Japanese studies, but who have an informed and substantial desire to integrate Japan into their work, has made it possible for many of her peers to deepen their expertise, broaden their teaching, and extend their scholarship in Japan-related directions. China specialists have brought their knowledge of Japan’s deep cultural debt to its much larger continental neighbor to their KIIS Japan courses on Japanese history, literature, and religion. Artists have been able to make Japan’s gorgeous landscapes and stunning architecture part of their drawing and painting classrooms by teaching in the program. Social scientists have tested and expanded their Western-focused training by incorporating Japanese economic, psychological, and sociological realities and patterns into their contributions to KIIS student learning.

All of these journeys share one thing in common: they began with the smiling face and determined stride of Yoko Hatakeyama, who keeps leading Kentuckians and others to the beautiful, hospitable land of her birth, making the world a little richer and a little smaller, one step at a time. In 2022, she will lead yet another group of students and faculty to Japan, continuing the work that she began over twenty years ago.

by: Melanie McCallon Seib, Director of Education Abroad, Murray State University

Yoko Hatakeyama is not just any partner to international education at Murray State. She is a leader in Japanese language teaching and program design abroad, where she has taken countless Kentucky students to study Japanese culture and language firsthand. But it is not only with the KIIS program that she has been so successful. Prof. Hatakeyama also promotes semester and year study in Japan through individual counseling with students and specific matching of student’s ability with the proper partner university abroad.

She has secured funding for almost a decade just for students studying in Japan. She coordinates orientation with the Murray Education Abroad office and leads students in cultural immersion study. And finally, she has promoted the JET program for years, to incredible success for MSU recipients. Without Prof. Hatekayama, MSU would not have a Japanese language program (the first Japanese major in the state of KY) or successful Japan study abroad programming. She is one of our greatest partners and advocates for language learning and for learning abroad and we are thrilled that she was formally recognized by the Consulate in such a public and deserving manner.

Additional News Articles about Prof. Hatakeyama, the KIIS Japan Program and Alumni

Japan_Yoko Hatakeyama_Lexington Japan Festival_Award Ceremony4

Prof. Yoko Hatakeyama

KIIS Japan Program Director
Japanese Instructor
Murray State University

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