Jackson State University’s Japan Fest bridges U.S. and Japanese cultures, aims to enlighten

(JACKSON, Miss.) — Daiki Suematsu is doing it for the culture. The Japanese outreach coordinator for Jackson State University recently hosted the inaugural Japan Fest at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

The event featured saki tasting, anime, traditional yukata (cotton summer kimono), taiko (Japanese percussion drums) performances, cosplay and Asian-themed fashion show, among other Japanese crafts, toys and entertainment.

“I came up with this idea because many people in Mississippi don’t know what Japanese culture really is,” explained Suematsu, a native of Osaka. I want people here to learn our culture and make a good relationship between Japan and the U.S.”

Since 2019, Suematsu has worked to advance Japanese culture at Jackson State and other communities throughout Mississippi. His work is made possible via the Japan Foundation, an administrative agency of the Japanese government, which hosts international cultural exchange programs globally.

Suematsu received a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Kobe City University of Foreign Studies in 2013. After graduation, he spent six years working for an automotive manufacturer before joining the Japan Foundation and landing at JSU.

Japan Fest is Suematsu’s last project before the end of his two-year JSU fellowship. The coordinator said he wants people to know much more about Japanese culture than what is shown on television or in movies.

“There are so many things we have that people do not know. We have a pop culture in Japan. So, today we have a DJ playing Japanese songs. I want people to experience real Japanese activities and life,” Suematsu said.

Businesses like Offbeat, Mississippi’s only culture store, had their anime wares on full display. Among its many novelty items, Offbeat pushes import toys, city pop, vinyl records, turntables, and art books, including Manga – comics or graphic novels that originated in Japan.

“We brought a lot of stuff that comes from Japan so people can get a taste of what we sell at Offbeat. It’s also important that people see that we respect the culture,” said Phillip Rollins, owner.

The Jackson native said Japan Fest is indicative of Jackson’s diversity. “We’re not just one note with events. It’s important to expose others to cultures outside of Mississippi. It helps to counter possible culture shock when people meet people from different countries, as well,” he said.

Mississippian Brianna Rushing and her boyfriend, Hiraki Takanori of Japan, were among the hundreds of attendees at Japan Fest. The couple revealed that they met online, and after dating virtually, Takanori flew to the U.S. a year ago, so the two could finally meet in person.

“Japan Fest is important because others should be educated about diversity. People will stereotype what they assume is the culture,” said Rushing, 28. “So events like this are an educational experience. Plus, I think it’s fun for little kids.”

Takanori, 26, acknowledged the authenticity of the arts, crafts and entertainment.

“There are a lot of traditional Japanese items here. I am glad the person in charge of this event had the knowledge to do all of this,” he said.

Keila Esteves shared similar sentiments.

“I love Japan, and I love Japanese culture. I watch a lot of anime. I love their fashion. There is so much to love about this culture that I just had to come and see this,” said Esteves, who is visiting Mississippi from Puerto Rico.

The 19-year-old explained that she discovered Japan Fest through an ad on Instagram. “I do not want to leave. My favorite thing so far, I guess, would be the bookmarks,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see the handwriting (calligraphy) with the brushes and everything. I really enjoyed it.”

Overall, Esteves shared that Japan Fest is amazing, and she “loves it.”

Someone else who loves what Suematsu has done for the city of Jackson is Dr. Tomaz Cunningham, interim director of JSU Global.

“We are really excited to have a Japan Fest, 2021. Suematsu is an excellent teacher, and he has been sharing his culture with us. This is the culmination of everything he’s done. This is a great turnout, and everybody’s having a great time,” he said.

Cunningham, who is also an associate professor of French, further added that cross-cultural communication today is essential and learning about other cultures and ways of life is a must.

“The more that we can share our culture like this, the more we are open to other ways of living and other languages. It enriches our daily experience.”

Japan Fest was sponsored by the Japan Foundation, Nissan and Unipres Corp.