The Ketchikan-Gero-Kanayama exchange program — connecting students, teachers, families, cities and countries — is blossoming after the COVID-19 pandemic paused the beloved 35-year-old program that joins Ketchikan and the Japanese cities.

The exchange program first was envisioned in 1986, according to program documents, when citizens of Kanayama, Japan were searching for a U.S. city with which to establish an exchange program. Ketchikan was selected because it had many similarities to Kanayama: population size, industries and similar locale features.

A group of officials from Kanayama traveled to Ketchikan in November, 1986 to discuss a relationship with Ketchikan delegates, and in 1987 papers of intent were signed.

The primary goal sought by founders was educational, leading to the first exchange of students and teachers to begin. The program in Ketchikan allows local eighth-graders to participate in the exchange.

Ketchikan local Christa Bruce and her family served as the first teacher exchange participants

In 2004, Kanayama, along with four other towns, was incorporated into Gero City, and the program’s name was then changed to the Ketchikan-Gero-Kanayama exchange program. Japanese students in the program now come from all sectors of Gero.

Kanayama-Gero and Ketchikan have exchanged teachers yearly since 1987, with only the 2020-2021 school year inactive due to the pandemic. 

Ketchikan’s teacher, while in Japan, instructs English skills and American and local customs, and shares knowledge of Ketchikan, as well. The Japanese teacher, while in Ketchikan, teaches the Japanese language and Japanese customs and culture to all grade levels of the Ketchikan school district. 

During a May 17 interview in a Ketchikan High School classroom , Kayhi teacher Dan Patton spoke about the future of the program. He also is the KGK program board treasurer, an exchange program student alumni and exchange program teacher alumni. 

Patton was joined by Tim Currall, who also was an exchange program student and is an exchange program teacher alumni. 

Currall said that he was the program’s exchange teacher in 2003, and spent much time with the Hosoe family. In 2004, Patton worked as the exchange teacher.

Brothers Kazuki and Shogo Hosoe, Kanayama residents, also attended the May 17 interview. 

Kazuki Hosoe, the older of the two, was Currall’s exchange brother when they were 13-year-old students. Kazuki Hosoe also traveled with a student group as a chaperone later. Shogo Hosoe was a student participant, and both brothers returned to the program as exchange teachers. Shogo Hosoe currently is serving as the Japanese exchange teacher in Ketchikan.

The exchange experiences created strong bonds between Currall, Patton and the Hosoe brothers that have lasted for many years. Currall, several years ago, attended Kazuki Hosoe’s wedding in Japan. This past week, Kazuki Hosoe traveled to Ketchikan to attend Currall’s wedding, which took place on Saturday.

Hosoe said, “this relationship, coming back again, Tim is the trigger … it’s been a good time spent together.”

Currall said that Hosoe recently has welcomed a baby to his family, and Currall hopes he also will start a family soon.

“We’d love to see our kids be exchange students together someday,” Currall said. 

Kazuki Hosoe said it was gratifying how the program has brought generations together. 

There have been no exchanges of students since the 2018/2019 school year, due to pandemic mitigations. Patton said they are awaiting word from the Japanese representatives to hear whether Ketchikan students will be allowed to travel for the program this coming year.

Ketchikan students must apply, interview, then obtain acceptance into the program by the program’s board. That  process  traditionally has taken place at the start of the students’ eighth grade year. Those students accepted into the program spend time in school learning Japanese from the exchange teacher in formal classes. Participants also spend time outside of school gathered in special sessions to learn more about the culture, geography and people of Japan.

Fundraising also is a big part of participation in the Ketchikan program. During the holiday season, students and their families wrap gifts in local stores, and in previous years, they sold pizzas to raise funds for their trip. 

Kazuki Hosoe said that in Japan, students are not allowed to work to raise money, so they receive a bit of money from the government to support their involvement, and bolster that with private funds.

The teachers in Ketchikan are supported through Ketchikan Gateway Borough and Ketchikan School District grants.

The student group from Ketchikan usually travels with several chaperones to Kanayama-Gero in early summer, soon after the school year’s end, to spend nearly three weeks there. The participants stay at assigned host family homes, immersed in Japanese family life. They also attend schools and city meetings to give presentations, travel to notable historical sites, and visit different areas to experience the local cuisine, arts and traditions.

Currall said that the exchange program was part of his family for many years, with all four of his brothers having been part of the program over the years, in addition to himself. 

“My family’s been deeply integrated in this from the time I was a tiny kid, and we always hosted people every year,” Currall said. 

He also spoke of a core value instilled from the beginning of the program, when he described a video he saw of Christa Bruce’s late husband speaking about how “the program was one of the greatest things going for things like world peace, because it gets kids from a very young age to see a completely different culture and become friends with all these other families and just, you know, understand that we’re all the same, despite all our cultural differences.”

Currall included Kazuki and Shogo Hosoe when he added, “we’ve all been impacted deeply by this program and I think my early-age exchange to Japan — it really changed my view of the world and everything else and just made me open, as I think it does with every exchange student, to all the different cultures and people of the world. 

“I think it’s amazing,” he said. “I think these sorts of programs should be replicated everywhere, to all cultures.”

Currall also noted that several marriages have resulted from the exchange program over the years between people from Ketchikan and Kanayama-Gero.

The Ketchikan resident teaching for the program in Kanayama currently is Matt Armstrong.

Armstrong described his experiences via Facebook Messenger on Monday.

He arrived in Japan in October, and has been teaching students ranging in age from preschool through middle school. 

“I generally help Japanese teachers of English with things like pronunciation … reading from textbooks and correcting writing assignments,” he wrote.

Armstrong said he also shares information about American culture with students, and said they tend to be very interested in “pizza and McDonald’s,” as well as movies and his favorite places in Ketchikan. During Christmas lessons, he said that he and his middle school students watched the original animated show, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Armstrong said that he applied for the teaching position “because I’ve wanted to teach English overseas for as long as I’ve known people could teach English overseas.” He was especially grateful to find a program with a long-standing high reputation.

Shogo Hosoe has been busy this year working with Ketchikan’s students of all ages. He visits classes in all elementary schools for about a half hour once weekly, teaching a series of lessons in Japanese language and culture.

He described those sessions as a “fun time,” where he uses games, music and cooking to share his culture and language with the students. 

Patton said that Shogo Hosoe “really gets on the kids’ level, on the little kids’ level. It’s pretty cool to watch him. He’s just, like, running around playing with them.”

Shogo Hosoe also teaches Japanese language classes at Schoenbar Middle School, and said that the older students are a bit more challenging to communicate with due to his English skills, which are excellent, but still improving.

Hosoe also works with Patton’s after-school Japanese club at Kayhi. 

“We do a lot of just learning Japanese words and Japanese conversation and stuff like that,” Patton said.

This week, they have a Zoom meeting planned with Kanayama Elementary School students. 

Currall said he’s always felt that the Japanese exchange teacher position is “more of being a cultural ambassador than a language teacher.”

When asked what he’ll miss most when he returns to Japan in early June, Hosoe said he expects it will be his Ketchikan friends, his host family — “everything.”

Patton said he is working on approval of a for-credit Japanese class at Kayhi. He explained that, after exchange students work so hard to prepare for their Japanese adventure in eighth grade, there has been a big gap when they attend Kayhi a few months later and there is no program to allow them to build on all they learned.

Currall and Patton said they now also are working to compile a database of the program’s alumni, with the hopes of connecting them.

“It’s a pretty powerful group after 35 years,” Patton said. “There’s something like … 600 people who have been over there now.”

Patton said that there are many sister-city relationships between Japan cities and American cities, but the Kanayama/Ketchikan relationship is the longest lived of them all.

The new KGK program board is working to build on the successes that the previous board worked many years to achieve, Patton said. 

Of the program, he said, “I think it’s more important than ever, really, because of the current world we live in.”

He also said he thinks that more such programs are needed, as “America can be kind of insular sometimes. We need to get our kids abroad and seeing what it’s like out there.”

Currall said, “this sort of exchange is amazing and there’s so many good things on both sides for everybody, for their entire lives, and that’s why I think this age — which they chose to do it — it’s the perfect age for that.”

He explained that he remembers feeling pretty closed-minded as an eighth grader.

“You’re thrown over into this completely different culture and it really helps you see the world through a different light and change the way you develop as a person,” Currall said. 

Patton said that right now, the focus of the board is to gather more volunteers to join the effort to revitalize the program. 

He said board members also are working to bring fresh ideas to the program, such as possibly offering classes in Japanese culture, language, cooking and arts to community members of all ages.

Tony Worrell, the former Ketchikan resident who now is the coordinator for International Exchange for the city of Gero,  described in an email to the Daily News why he has long been a passionate supporter of the program.

“As our world grows more divided with fear, hate and mistrust, we look for ways to build up mutual respect, love and trust again,” he wrote.

“The Ketchikan Gero Kanayama Exchange is one such proven way of reuniting with one another,” Worrell added. “Pearl Harbor and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not that long ago. It was almost impossible for our people living then to imagine that one day Japan and America would welcome each other into their homes, growing in love and respect for each other and building up friendships in spite of differences in language, culture and religion.”

He continued, “for 35 years people have worked long and hard to support each other in this endeavor, and much of this long, hard work has been done by volunteers, working dozens of years or even decades to ensure that the program has come this far.

“Those who have taken part in the exchange know what a precious jewel it is; how it gives us first-hand experience with people who we would suppose are so very different from us, but who prove to be just as human and loving, laughing and caring, giving and forgiving, as we are,” Worrell added.

To contact the KGK program board about how to get involved, email info@ketchikangerokanayama.org. To find out more about the program, visit the program’s website at www.ketchikangerokanayama.org.