7/8/2013 11:42:00 AM Central Illinois man has roots in Japan
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) — Ken Ota’s job with the Japanese steel industry brought him to the Twin Cities when the Diamond Star automobile plant opened in Normal about 23 years ago.
He and his wife, Tomoko, ended up enjoying life in Bloomington-Normal so much they’ve called it home ever since. Ota recently was awarded dual citizenship in Japan and the United States, but that doesn’t mean Ota has forgotten his roots.
He is the principal and a history, social studies and government teacher at the Twin Cities’ Japanese Saturday School and recently was appointed to the Asahikawa, Japan/Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities Committee.
The school was started to help Japanese children stay “at the same level they would be in at Japanese schools,” said Ota. Originally, many students were in the Twin Cities for only a couple of years while a parent worked at Diamond Star, now known as Mitsubishi Motors North America.
Ota said there are about 200 similar schools in the world and 30 in the United States.
When the Twin City school opened, about 100 Japanese children attended. Ota served on the school board. Currently, there are about 35 students, he said.
“They come from all over Central Illinois,” he said. One family came from as far away as Macomb.
Ota became interim principal about nine years ago. He was then named principal.
“I like being with the kids,” he said. “It keeps me young.”
The job opened about the same time Ota started Alpha Graphics, a franchise printing company at 716 E. Empire St. After moving to the Twin Cities, Ota worked in the steel industry about five years, then took a job as general manager of purchasing at Diamond Star.
After 10 years, he said, “I just wanted to do something on my own.”
Two of his sons, Ace and Ken, also work at the business.
In addition to operating Alpha Graphics, Ota has become involved in the community. He was a member of the Rotary Club and is part of the Sound of Illinois barbershop chorus. He also swims competitively.
Last summer, he was asked to serve on a committee helping plan the 50th anniversary celebration of the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities program with Asahikawa. About 40 residents from the Japanese city, including such dignitaries as the chiefs of the international affairs division, chairman of the city council and vice chairman of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry, came for the weeklong event.
“It was the first time I got involved with the program,” he said, adding he got to know the Asahikawa representatives while they were here.
Afterward, Sister Cities Committee Chairman Rich Strle asked Ota if he would be interested in serving on the committee.
“He’s the kind of guy who gets work done,” said Strle. “We’re busy with the exchange program — sending two students over and getting two students here — and the junior high program and the gardens. There’s always something to do.”
Ota recently was appointed to the committee by the Normal City Council. He now serves as the committee’s secretary.
Ota has never been to Asahikawa, but he hopes to visit there some day.
He used to travel a lot with the steel company — working in his native Tokyo, then moving to Houston, then to Vancouver — he’s “tired of moving around.”
His parents are no longer living so there’s little need for him to return to Tokyo. A son, Ryohei, works in Tokyo but usually makes an annual trip to the Twin Cities to see the family in their adopted homeland.
“Bloomington-Normal is such a nice city; very safe,” said Ota. “We like it.”