KETCHIKAN — The Ketchikan-Gero-Kanayama exchange program was only the start of Nao Kumazaki’s love of world travel.
She was an eighth-grade Japanese exchange student visiting Ketchikan for the first time in 2005. Recently, she was one of the chaperones at the Ward Lake exchange-program picnic.
She also traveled to Ketchikan to visit on her own three years ago, and stayed with her original host family of Linda Newton and Mary Key.
She since has visited 20 countries, studied English in Vietnam, and most recently toured Jordan. She said she’s become so much more confident.
“When I came here for the first time eight years ago, it was my first trip abroad. I had lots of culture shock,” Kumazaki said.
She is studying law in Japan, with one year left to graduate. Kumazaki said she has no intention of becoming a lawyer, adding that it is common in Japan to study law, then work in other fields, such as business.
“For me, that experience opened my eyes to the world,” she said.
She said she sees exchange programs as critical to teach people how to interact peacefully and effectively. Knowing individuals from foreign countries forces people to see each other as human. She said it was when she became friends with a Korean she began to realize that truth.
“This exchange program is really important,” she said, adding that it is crucial that people, especially in a relatively insular country such as Japan, learn about different cultures in real-life ways, not just through the media.
The group of about 25 Japanese and Ketchikan exchange students at the lake was joined March 30 by their families, chaperones and past exchange participants and board members. The group ate hamburgers, hurtled past tree trunks on rope swings and shared laughter on the calm, overcast afternoon.
Mai Imai was with the rope-swing group, and is the first Kanayama-Gero exchange participant who is the child of a former exchange student.
She said, through interpretive help from Kumazaki, that she became interested in the exchange program through hearing about it from her mother, who came to Ketchikan 21 years ago.
She said her interest in traveling to other countries also was piqued by Manga books and by Ketchikan students visiting her elementary school when she was young.
Her favorite activity since arriving in Ketchikan has been the Schoenbar dance, she said, adding that there are no school dances where she is from.
She was in agreement with nearly every student who shared their thoughts — the language barrier was the most difficult part of the exchange experience. The Japanese students only had arrived three days before the picnic.
Imai said she is eager to become more fluent in English.
Teacher and chaperone Tony Hatano-Worrell, a 1982 Ketchikan High School graduate, attended the picnic as well. He has been an English teacher in an area north of Kanayama for the past 20 years, where he and his wife, Toshimi, are raising their two children.
He translated for Junki Taniguchi, who said his favorite part of Ketchikan so far were the totem poles at Totem Bight State Historical Park, because the animals in them were interesting. He said that getting ready for the trip was most challenging for him, because he is the piano player for the group’s choral performances, and playing in front of crowds made him nervous.
He said he was surprised by how huge and full of items the Ketchikan’s retail stores are.
A 2011 Gero-Kanayama program alumni, Anthony Joslin, said he had been invited to the picnic by the Japanese chaperone, Kazuki Hase. Joslin said his involvement in the exchange program amazing.
“Being able to go abroad was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said, adding that his favorite parts were the Japanese hospitality and bonding with other participants. Regarding the other students’ struggles with the language barrier, he said it’s the effort that matters.
“Even if you can’t speak (that language), try anyway,” he said.
Randy Estrin, who looks forward to traveling with the other Ketchikan eighth-graders to the Gero-Kanayama area in June, said he is looking forward to the host family stay and “new landscapes, trees and temperatures.”
He said Japan Day at The Plaza was his favorite activity since the Japanese students had arrived, and he especially enjoyed learning calligraphy and trying on the traditional Japanese robes.
Eighth-graders Catherine Hudson, Elsie Heinl, Alison Blair, Ashley Hancock and Ada Castle eagerly shared their thoughts about the program under the newest Ward Lake shelter, where attendees jostled for chips, sodas and a spot at the hearth near the blazing fire.
All nodded agreement when Hudson said the best part of the Japanese students’ visit so far was the anticipation of waiting for their visitors to arrive at Schoenbar Middle School. Heinl said they were waiting with great excitement, holding a welcome sign for their guests.
“We freaked out when their luggage came,” Hudson said, and all four laughed.
They agreed the sleepover they’d had with the Japanese girls was the most fun they’d had so far. Hudson said a great moment for her was when she had been working to explain what a hot dog was to her Japanese guest, and the visitor finally got it.
Hancock said they all had been using a computer application called Doodlebuddy to help them communicate. Hudson said her mom was surprised at first that her Japanese wasn’t very good.
Blair said getting to know the Japanese girls and families was really fun, and Heinl said they were looking forward to the three weeks they will get to stay with them in Japan, where they will attend classes with their Japanese friends. She said they also look forward to visiting an area preschool.
Heinl said she also is excited for the sightseeing, and their stop in Korea.
They said they’d been looking forward to being a part of the program for a long time.
Castle’s and Heinl’s older siblings both had participated in the program, and that piqued their interest, they said. Castle said she especially looked forward to the hot weather.
Hancock said that adults should encourage kids who are nervous about it to join the program. She added that the months of meetings, practices and fundraisers had been “hard, but worth it.”
“It’s better to do it and not regret (not doing it),” she said, adding that meeting new people and trying new things is important.
Castle said her mother, Colleen Castle, will be a chaperone for the trip to Japan. Hudson countered that her mom “was not allowed to go,” and explained that most kids want the freedom to explore without a parent shadowing them.
“We need independence,” she said.