CELAYA, MEXICO – Celaya, an industrial city in the heart of Mexico, now has a Japanese-language class where the teacher uses honorifics, addressing her students as “Felipe-san” or “Christian-san.”
Across town, a hotel installed a special satellite dish on its rooftop to capture a Japanese TV channel, while receptionists greet visitors by saying “konnichiwa” (“hello”).
A central road is named Mexico-Japan Avenue, and at the city’s entrance a giant billboard reads, “Celaya is a good choice. Welcome Honda.”
The sign might as well have been: Welcome, Japan.
Celaya and other cities in Mexico’s Guanajuato state are greeting with open arms the arrival of Japanese car makers Honda and Mazda, dozens of parts suppliers and legions of expatriates.
“It is changing the face of Celaya,” said Fernando Vera Noble, director of the city’s economic development department, at his office in a glass tower building, on the same floor as a Honda subsidiary.
Guanajuato is becoming a major hub for the growing number of foreign car makers that are flocking to Mexico for its relatively low wages, proximity to the massive US market and free-trade deals with numerous nations.
Mexico is now the eighth biggest car producer in the world and the fourth biggest exporter. Guanajuato stands out as a prime destination for Japanese firms.
Japan is Guanajuato’s biggest investor, pouring $4 billion into the state and creating 25,000 jobs in the past seven years, helping to fuel a rising middle class by paying the highest manufacturing wages, according to official figures.
“The Japanese company boom was sparked in 2011 with the Honda and Mazda announcements,” said Hector Lopez Santillana, the Guanajuato state secretary for economic development.
On Feb. 21, President Enrique Pena Nieto inaugurated the $800 million Honda factory in Celaya, a city of half a million people. The company is also building a $470 million transmissions plant. A week later, Neito returned to Guanajuato to launch Mazda’s $770 million factory in Salamanca, a half-hour drive west of Celaya.
With some 1,500 Japanese citizens now living in Guanajuato, and the state government expecting 5,000 by 2016, many here are trying to learn the ways of their visitors.
Fabiola Gorostieta Arevalo opened the Jikokensan Japanese Academy with her sister Maria Guadalupe last September in a three-floor white house filled with pictures of Mount Fuji. They have 25 students, ranging from young children to university students, Honda workers and other people interested in Japanese culture or looking to pad their resumes.
“The opening of the factory will bring more interest in learning the language because people already see Japanese people in the supermarket, in the street, so they want to be closer to Japanese society,” Fabiola said.
Upstairs, Maria Guadalupe was leading a class of six students who were sitting at red and orange school desks. She asked “Christian-san,” “Felipe-san” and the others to get up and introduce themselves in Japanese.
“I was always interested in the culture. Unfortunately, there used to be few possibilities to find a school to learn the language,” said Christian Duval, 32, a computer specialist sporting a baseball hat.
Felipe Rivera, a 26-year-old Honda assembly line worker, said learning the language could help him move up in his career: “I’m interested in learning their way of thinking. At work, you realize that they think differently than Latin Americans. Maybe by understanding their idiosyncrasies, it can help me work better with them,” he explained.
The mix of cultures has brought out old cliches about the Japanese obsession with punctuality versus Mexican tardiness.
“There’s differences between Japan and Mexico,” said Tomokazu Matsushita, the 34-year-old manager of subsidiary Honda Trading, who moved here seven months ago with his wife and children. “In Mexico, how can I say this … to buy something and install something, it takes a little bit of time,” he said, stressing that he has been too busy working to see much more of Mexico.
Lopez Santillana, a Guanajuato state official, said the two cultures are learning from each other. “In Mexico, we use terms such as ‘manana‘ (tomorrow) and ‘ahorita‘ (right now),” he said. “We are getting used to the fact that (for the Japanese) tomorrow means the first work hour of the next day and that ‘ahorita’ really means right now.”
Mexicans also have advice for the Japanese. “We are teaching them to be flexible,” he said.
The services and tourism industry are adapting and growing, with 22 hotels under construction, Japanese restaurants opening and plans to build a school for Japanese children.
The 126-room Casa Inn Hotel in Celaya has become the second home of visiting Honda executives. The hotel’s 99 employees have taken Japanese lessons, the restaurant’s menu is in Japanese with dishes like Udon noodle soup and guests can watch Japan’s NHK broadcast channel.
“The whole city is in great communion with the Japanese,” said Casa Inn rooms manager Federico Mendoza Schuster. “We know that their presence is important and beneficial to our city.”