Memories of America

In our Autumn 2023 issue, we explore the history of the Japanese soy sauce company, Kikkoman Foods Inc., and its decision to open a production facility in Walworth in 1973. In that piece, we introduce readers to Narumi Ikezawa, whose husband, Hiroshi Ikezawa, was one of the Japanese employees of Kikkoman. The Ikezawas relocated to the area from 1977-1982, and during that time, Narumi formed deep and lasting friendships with many local residents. (You can learn more about her lifelong friendship with Williams Bay resident Jerre Burrough in the article.)

We asked Narumi for more of her thoughts on her time in the United States, and she graciously shared the following reflections. (The responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)

ATL: What year did you and your husband first move to America?

Narumi Ikezawa (NI): We arrived and settled in a motel in Walworth on March 8, 1977, following Kikkoman’s request that they wanted my husband, Hiroshi, to work at the plant’s office. It was the first time for me to be there [in the United States], but before this move, Hiroshi had stayed in the area as one of the starting workers when Kikkoman was working to set up the plant. He was single then. We got married in October, 1976, and settled in an apartment in Japan, before we received the surprising request to move over to the U.S.

ATL: What was your impression of Wisconsin when you first moved here?

NI: So huge and full of borderless agricultural fields. Kikkoman wanted us Japanese workers to live apart [from each other] and not to make a colony, so that we could get associated with local people. Of course, Kikkoman did not mean to prohibit us from getting together: in fact, we often met, chatted and went out together. As I was a young bride [at the time], they really took good care of me and I learned a lot about cooking and tips for child rearing, etc., from the wives of Japanese workers.

As the U.S. and Wisconsin were a foreign land for these Japanese wives, Kikkoman asked a local lady to act as a teacher/helper to have each of us get settled and to enjoy life in the area. Mrs. Elsa Weber [of Williams Bay] was my “teacher,” and all through my stay in Wisconsin, she and her family and her friends took great care of me and my family, taking us out for lunch, shopping, hosting home parties, Christmas dinners, even baby showers for our children. Calling out each person’s name [who was welcoming to us] would take forever. That’s how many friends there [in Wisconsin] were wonderful to us.

Not a single time did I ever feel uncomfortable while I was there. After our five years’ stay, when Kikkoman asked us to return to Japan, I was very sad [to leave]. From the young people to the elderly [in Walworth County], I was surrounded with wonderful friends. After I returned [to Japan], I gradually learned that some of the older people [I had known in Wisconsin] left this world, but surely they still live in my heart vividly, and I am grateful of my encounters with each one. I try to talk about them to the children [in my family].

ATL: What made you decide to live in Williams Bay when you came to America?

NI: After we got here, we started looking for an apartment to live in. After we drove through wide open corn fields and drove onto the avenue with a green grove with the sign that said “Williams Bay, Population 1,600,” we instantly fell in love with the village, and decided to live in Williams Bay. Both of us are from the Tokyo area, a big city full of people, and so we just loved “a tiny village.” First, we found an old, two-story apartment. The neighbors at my first apartment, Kathy and Dick, were also very kind, always ready to offer helping hands to make me, a newcomer, feel comfortable in the new place. Other Japanese families wanted to take advantage of being in the U.S. and visited many other places in the States [during their time there], but we were just as comfortable being on the beach.

One year later, we found a larger apartment on Clover Street. The property was next to the big yard of Jerre and Dave Burrough. Soon we found that we had daughters of the same age. As Jerre and Dave were so open to us, we gradually started having our girls play together and sharing the fun of child-rearing.

ATL: After forming your friendship with the Burroughs, what activities did you like to do together? Did your families spend a lot of time together?

NI: First we became close because of the children. We watched the kids play. We enjoyed going to the beach. Jerre also introduced us to her other friends of our [similar] age. And so, Jerre was really an almost-partner of child-rearing, someone to watch [the kids together] and have fun with the children. Since there was no fence between our yards, the children really ran around and spent time together. [Our daughters] were almost sisters.

ATL: What year did your family return to Japan?

NI: In September 1982, after I had my second child in May. We knew that, usually, Kikkoman transferred workers between their different offices every five years or so, customarily. Knowing that I would not be able to come [back to the U.S.] to visit very often, I was very sad to leave Willams Bay. Friends there were very kind, and threw a big farewell picnic at the Webers’ farm, where many friends whom I had met were kind enough to come [to say good-bye].

ATL: Is there anything you have missed in Wisconsin since returning home?

NI: Friends, and the fact that I could not see them often, as I did before. I remember I wrote a lot of letters to Jerre and others. Eleanor, who took care of me, came to visit me, and brought the lovely “air” of Wisconsin. I wanted my children to know the people who had cared for me and my family while they grew up, and so I visited Williams Bay later with my two children, and also had them visit on their own. Each time, friends took great care of them, especially Jerre and Dave, who treated them like their children.

ATL: When Jerre came to visit you in Japan a few years ago, what are some of the activities you planned or sites you visited?

NI: I was thrilled to hear that Jerre was serious about coming over to meet us here. I wanted her to come at the very best time of the year. I chose late March to April to arrange hotels and railway tickets when I was sure that we could travel around seeing a lot of cherry blossoms. The very first night of her arrival, we stayed in a hotel in Tokyo, not only to let her have some rest after a long flight, but also for us to go to a park to watch local Japanese people enjoy a night picnic under illuminated cherry blossoms. Because this was the first time for her to come over to Japan, I arranged for us to travel together to the Hakone hot springs area and to Kyoto. The flowers were beautiful everywhere, but we most enjoyed just chatting and sharing the time together as old friends. The children enjoyed visiting Edo Village, which is [a historic site ] like Colonial Williamsburg, with Jerre dressed in Japanese kimono. She was interviewed by a national TV program there.

ATL: What has your friendship with Jerre and the Burrough family meant to you and your family over the years?

I wanted her to spend some time with [my daughter’s] children so that the children can carry on our friendship. I asked Jerre to stay at my daughter’s tiny apartment rather than my house. The children loved having her as a special guest, and they still feel very close to her and her family. They loved having [Jerre’s son] when he came over later.

As I said, Jerre was a pal and we brought up our children together, but at the same time she has been a symbol of friendship and love between me and the people in Williams Bay. This relationship does not just stay between us two alone. This feeling of “care for” we have built over many years as friends, and I was blessed to receive the same feeling from the people I had met in Williams Bay. I hope that it will pop up somewhere or sometime in the future among the next generation.

I am grateful I was given the opportunity of wonderful experiences and memories of the lovely people [in Walworth County].

0 replies on “Memories of America”