On March 19, welcomed a group of foreign exchange students from Saijo, Japan, the village’s sister city across the Pacific Ocean.
MFHS is one of a handful of schools around the state that offer a full-fledged Japanese language program. For 22 years, MFHS has participated in a student exchange program with Japan.
Despite the horrific earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the northeastern coast of Japan, students from Saijo arrived in the United States without complication. Saijo is a city of about 116,000 people situated on an island in the southwest portion of Japan.
Fortunately, Japanese students and chaperones weren’t directly affected by the disaster. Caleb DeMarais, Saijo’s coordinator for international relations, grew up in Minnesota and said the disaster leaves a similar feeling as the attacks on 9/11. DeMarais calls Saijo his home, but is still a permanent citizen of the United States.
“It shows the vulnerability of large island nations,” DeMarais said. “But as of right now we should have no problem getting back home.”
Rie Ito, a chaperone and teacher in Saijo, said they received an outpouring of support from the MFHS students and the community. MFHS is collecting monetary donations for the Red Cross until March 25 to help the people of Japan.
“I was very sad and worried about people back home,” Ito said. “We went to church here and everyone prayed for Japan. I know that we will stand up once again, and we are not alone. I also thank the American people for their support.”
Becoming international citizens
Unlike the melting pot of cultures in the United States, close to 99 percent of the population in Japan are Japanese. DeMarais said the exchange program is an invaluable opportunity for young students to appreciate other cultures.
“In just 10 days it’s phenomenal to watch the kids grow and blossom into international citizens,” DeMarais said. “They’re acting more like American kids, but it’s also inspiring to see American kids embrace their culture.”
Most of the students on the trip have studied English roughly four years, but are a bit shy in speaking the language. Ito said the trip helps students come out of their shells in a short time.
“Already they are more open-minded about speaking the language. Some people are a bit shy buy they are opening up,” Ito said.
During their 10-day stay in the United States the students toured Menomonee Falls businesses, shadowed students at MFHS, and will tour Milwaukee and visit Mayfair Mall. On Monday, the students exchanged gifts from the mayor of Saijo with Village President Randy Newman at a Village Board meeting.
Striking differences between our cultures
Tomoya Toma, a 17-year-old student in Saijo, said the most noticeable difference between Japan and the United States was the friendliness of Americans.
“People are always waving and saying hello even though I am a stranger,” Tomoya said.
Tomoya said he was even more surprised by the Catholic ritual of shaking hands and sharing peace during the service. He laughed as he told the story, and said it was a confusing moment for him.
In Japan, the school environment is more strict and disciplined. Students are required to wear uniforms and they don’t eat or drink during class. Students said it was a surprise to see American students popping sodas and snacks in class, and the array of different fashion styles donned by students.
Ito said it was strange to see students raising their hands in the middle of class to ask questions. In Japan, she said students wait until class is over to ask a question.
DeMarais said Menomonee Falls and Saijo do share one thing in common however, and that’s clean and tasty drinking water. DeMarais said Saijo is renowned in Japan for it’s pure drinking water that flows from Mount Ishizuchi in an underwater river.
Because of the clean spring water, Saijo is home to Asahi Breweries, which owns a significant share of the Japanese beer market.
“Clean water, and delicious brew as a result, are something we share in common with this region,” DeMarais said.