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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
The 32-year exchange program between Ketchikan and the Japanese cities of Gero and Kanayama brought 10 Japanese eighth-graders and their chaperones to town March 24.
The visitors are housed with local families, as will be the 14 Ketchikan eighth-graders when they visit Japan in June.
The Japanese students will be in Ketchikan until Thursday morning, April 4.
Three of the Japanese chaperones and the Ketchikan program’s Board President Pat Perrier gathered Thursday during the Japan dance at Schoenbar Middle School to share their thoughts on and experiences with the program.
Makoto Yokoi said this is his first time in the United States. Chaperone and exchange student parent Miyuki Kato translated for him.
“People here in Ketchikan are very kind and friendly,” he said.
He added that he also feels the exchange program is very important for the students, because simply sharing experiences with people from a different culture is a positive influence.
“It’s going to be a very important experience for their future,” he said, adding that it will contribute to “deep thinking” about their futures, and to considering their goals.
Kato, who was an exchange student in the program’s first year, 32 years ago, explained how she became involved.
“When I was a girl,” she said, “I read a book about American life. I really wanted to have that experience, to live in America and study here.”
Kato said that after she graduated from college, she returned to Ketchikan to teach Japanese at Schoenbar.
“I really liked Ketchikan, and I wanted to be here again,” she said. “I thought teaching was a wonderful job to do.”
When she returned to Kanayama, she continued teaching as an English tutor for children aged 2 to 15.
When her daughter, Tsukino Kato, who is part of this year’s group, reached the age to apply for the program, Miyuki Kato had primed her for the experience.
“I told my experience to my daughter, so she wanted to come to Ketchikan as a student. I’m so happy because she wanted to come here,” she said.
At the “Japan Day” event, held at the Ketchikan Public Library on Saturday, Tsukino Kato described some of her notable experiences she’d had in town.
“The view is beautiful,” she said, with her mother translating.
She also said she’d been pretty surprised by the scale of American goods.
“Everything’s big,” she said, explaining that she found food portions at a restaurant to be “huge,” as have been the dishwashers and laundry machines.
What has been her favorite part of being in Ketchikan?
“Every day,” she answered, grinning.
Chaperone Kazu Imai, like Miyuki Kato, also has had a long relationship with the exchange program.
He was an eighth-grader in the program in 2009, and keeps coming back because “I love Ketchikan,” he said.
In the fall, he will return as the Schoenbar Japanese teacher.
“I’m a teacher back in Japan, so I want to teach students in America,” he said.
He said he is looking forward to sharing his experiences with his students back home.
“It’s a really good thing to share with everybody,” he said.
When asked what he saw as the most striking differences between American and Japanese students were, he paused for a few moments.
“It’s kind of everything,” he said.
He explained that in Japan, the teachers focus on creating passive and quiet behavior in the classroom.
“In America, everyone is talking and stuff,” he said. “But, I think it’s good for students, because they can talk and share the things — what they’re thinking. Japanese students don’t have that.”
Perrier, who has been involved with the program for about 20 years, jumped in to explain that all students in Japan are required to be working on the same lesson on the same day.
“There’s a real pressure to get through that lesson that day and move on so they’re not behind,” she said. “It’s very regimented.”
Perrier also described a few more differences between Japan’s schools and the U.S. schools.
Students take off their shoes before entering homes, or their schools. They wear slippers inside, and even have special slippers for the bathroom. Another unique difference is that Japanese schools do not hire janitors to clean up the buildings. The students thoroughly clean every day before they leave.
There have been some changes in the program over the years, Perrier said. It is more difficult to get funding now. Also, the program started with only the town of Kanayama involved in the program, but now several towns can send students, due to the consolidation of several small towns.
Perrier said a lot of the parents in those towns aren’t as familiar with the program, and are more reluctant to involve their children when they learn that the students will be living in homes with the Ketchikan families.
“I think some of the parents are a little bit nervous about it, but to me, that’s what makes the whole program — is that immersion into a home. To live like them, to get those close relationships going,” she said.
Perrier added that an improvement to the program over the years has been adding the Japanese class to Schoenbar’s roster. Attending that class helps the students get a boost, as they visit Japan with some Japanese language skills and knowledge of the culture.
“I want them to learn tolerance of different people,” Perrier said, “so they’re not the epitome of the ‘ugly American.’ That they can go over and they can interact and they can be polite and they can try things without making a weird face — that kind of thing.”
Perrier explained that the program started with eighth-graders when Kanayama first sought a sister-city exchange program. That city’s school only offered classes through ninth grade. Perrier said it’s turned out to be a great age for participating in such a program.
“I think they’re far more receptive, at this age, to experiencing things,” she said.
Miyuki Kato said that she was happy to see how comfortable students felt the minute they stepped out of the airport Sunday afternoon.
“‘Ketchikan is like Gero,’” she said she heard them exclaim. “Because we have water and mountains and the city.”
Kato said she remembers feeling the same way when she first saw Ketchikan. She and the other Japanese exchange students felt like they were home.
When asked what is expected of host families, Kato said, “Just to be — what they usually do.”
The group agreed that they wanted the students to simply experience what life is like as part of a Ketchikan family. Eating their food, taking their walks, living with the pets.
Imai, when asked what his favorite part of being an exchange student in 2009 was, answered, “Just kind of everything. It was so fun, because everything was different.”
Perrier said the students this year, similarly, are “having a great time.”
One Japanese student sighted a whale and some sea lions while out on a walk.
At the “Japan Day” event in the library, Japanese students led attendees in creating origami art, Japanese calligraphy, and helping them to try on summer kimonos, or “yukatas.”
Japanese student Seiga Higashi said what he’s enjoyed most about his stay in Ketchikan so far has been the social aspect.
“To meet many people here, and talk and have activities to do together,” have been great, he said, through Kato’s translation.
The only difficulty he’s encountered is poor sleep, as he was waking every couple of hours during the night.
He was surprised at first by one host family member.
“The size of the dog,” he said. “Big!”
There’s only been one food he hasn’t liked so far: cold cheese. He prefers it warm and melted.
Taro Imai, also speaking with Kato’s help, said his mother was in the exchange program in 1993. Taro is being hosted by this reporter’s family.
His favorite activity in Ketchikan so far was eating steak bites at Cape Fox restaurant with his host family, while enjoying the music of Chazz Gist, Hannah Hendrickson and Dave Rubin.
He was happily surprised that his host family allowed him to have diet soda at each meal.
Taro said he plans to urge his friends at home to get into the program. At first, he said he struggled with the decision of whether to come to Ketchikan. He said he was completely won over when he got to the welcoming party, held at Schoenbar on Sunday evening, and discovered that the people were very nice.
“I would say, ‘Better go — they are very warm and welcoming,” he said.
Ketchikan eighth-grader, Kevon Reese said he was inspired to get involved with the program back in 2009, when his brother Kable Lervick was a participant.
“After he did it, I was there, so I kind of had that experience with Kable, and I just fell in love with it,” he said.
“Having my new friend from Japan” has been his favorite aspect of the program, he said, adding, “He’s just been amazing, talking to me.”
He explained that he and his friend, Jun’nosuke Sawada, have been communicating by using a mix of Japanese and English.
The presence of the Japanese students at Thursday’s Schoenbar dance really livened things up, Kevon said, as they were enthusiastic, and got everybody dancing.
The best time he’s had with Jun’nosuke was when his family spent about two hours in the Ward Lake area bicycling together.
Ketchikan eighth-grader Aurora Phelps said she also was inspired by a sibling — her sister was a participant about three years ago. Her Japanese house guest is chaperone Imai.
She was enthusiastic about her favorite part of the program so far.
“I think it’s them staying with us,” she said. “It’s such a neat experience. You get to see what they’re like in the house, you get to see how they are. You get to experience what it’d be like to live with somebody else from a different country.”
One thing that impressed Aurora was her house guest Imai’s soccer skills.
She said she would tell younger students pondering whether to enter the program, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you don’t try out for it, you’re going to miss something great.”
She said she’s looking forward to experiencing Japanese culture, meeting new people and trying Japanese cuisine.
Kevon summed up, expressing his message to prospective program participants.
“If they’re thinking about going to Japan, they just need to do it. It’s super duper fun, and it’s going to be worth it,” he said.