Mina Johnson is living the American dream, but it’s one she hadn’t dreamed about growing up. An immigrant from Japan, Johnson is Nashville’s first Asian American and Pacific Islander member of the city council.
“I never imagined I would be doing this when I left Japan,” she says.
Because of deep-rooted cultural traditions, it’s still unusual for women in Japan to enter politics and for Asian Americans to run for public office — particularly in the self-proclaimed “buckle of the Bible Belt” of the South. But Johnson, 58, entered public life rather organically, taking on responsibilities because she cared for her neighborhood.
She fought development efforts in her neighborhood and then decided to run for office to better represent her neighbors. “I wanted to keep the neighborhood character. I believe development and growth has a right place … and a wrong place,” she says.
Johnson was born in Tokyo, far from the neighborhood she now calls home. She came to the United States to work for a Japanese company in Atlanta. She met her first husband there, and the couple moved to Cincinnati, where he had family. After going through a divorce, she then moved to Nashville and remarried.
Although Nashville isn’t exactly a hotbed of Asian culture, she says, “Once you’re here, it’s a really nice city to live, a lot like Japan. We have four seasons, and southern hospitality is very similar to Japanese culture.”
She says she hasn’t faced racism in Nashville, but admits that she was shocked when a Ku Klux Klan march was held in Cincinnati not long after she moved there in 1992.
The downside for a woman raised in Japan, she says, is that there aren’t that many Japanese restaurants she can frequent in Nashville. “We do have over 20 restaurants, maybe more,” she notes. But not many are Japanese-owned.
“We have very small Asian community,” she admits. “Especially the district I run in, 90 percent Caucasian, everything else is 10 percent.”
One recent Japanese transplant is Johnson’s mother, who now lives with her and her husband. Initially the couple served as caregivers for Johnson’s mother-in-law. “Right after we got married my mother-in-law became ill due to early-onset Alzheimer’s. So we were getting home health care. I quit my job to take care of her 24/7. We did this until the end-stage assisted living.”
After her mother-in-law passed away, Johnson’s mother came to visit from Japan and loved it. She moved to stay permanently in December 2005. “She wanted to have a small garden, but now she’s into it,” Johnson says, laughing. The garden is now an ongoing source for produce for the family.
Johnson turned to the small Japanese community and found women in her mother’s age group. Now her mother feels at home in Nashville, with a coterie of ladies who speak her language.
With caregiving and her city council duties keeping her busy, Johnson says she’s not quite ready to plan for any other public office. “This is my second year of a four-year term with a term limit of two terms. I would consider it if my constituents allow me to run for one more term.”
The “running for office” part was the most difficult for her, Johnson admits, because of her traditional Asian values. “It was kind of strange to talk about myself or my accomplishments,” she says. “But right after I started running I picked up four opponents — four men. I went through debates, so I quickly learned you can’t be shy.
“I had to talk about my accomplishments and what I’ve done. I worked in this neighborhood for a decade. I had not seen any of those four opponents [working for the neighborhood]. Where have you been? You have no idea what it’s like here.”
Now, she knows the rules of politics and is perfectly comfortable on the campaign trail. “Shaking hands, introducing myself,” she says. “It comes with the territory.”
Photo: Courtesy of Mina Johnson
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