Three students and their teacher from the tiny northernmost island of Rebun, Japan, visited John Muir Middle School recently, making art, enjoying a traditional tea ceremony and getting to know the school’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
As part of a multi-week cultural tour of the Los Angeles area, the Japanese visitors participated in Muir Japan Day festivities, which included a lesson in paper cutting with world-famous artist Kiyoto Kuge and a traditional Japanese tea ceremony led by Little Tokyo legend Madame Fumi Akutagawa.
“For Rebun, it is partly a way to save the community of a remote island,” Muir teacher and Japan Day organizer Ted DeVirgilis explained. “Rebun Island has been greatly affected by climate change. As the water has warmed over the previous decades, the fish, on which the island’s fishing industry relies, have largely left for colder waters in nearby Russia.”
“As a result, young families have left the island. The high school’s attendance dwindled so much that two students made up an entire class a few years ago,” DeVirgilis continued. “In short, this California exchange was established to encourage families to stay.”
“Two years ago, the first exchange made such an impact on the returning students that in 2013, twelve students—nearly half of the high school’s total enrollment of 26—came to the U.S.,” he added. “Last year they visited different schools in the San Fernando Valley, including Muir, where they learned conversational English, and then traveled to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.”
“The entire island of Rebun, Japan’s northernmost island, is a Japanese national park, known for its indigenous alpine flowers,” DeVirgilis said. “Between the sights they see and the people they meet and befriend, this is a life-changing one for the visiting students of Rebun.”
DeVirgilis sees this visit from Rebun students as an “amazing cultural opportunity for Muir students.” Many students at Muir have expressed interest in Japanese culture over the past two years, acting as Japan Day Ambassadors and forming an Anime Club.
Last year, Madame Akutagawa and her sister Ms. Hosobuchi visited Muir to demonstrate kimono wearing to 70 Clothing Design students. The sisters dressed Principal Dr. Greg Miller and Muir students in Japanese kimono style.
Akutagawa and Hosobuchi returned this year to explain the Japanese tea ceremony to 70 students in the Muir library. After a demonstration of the intricate tea-making process, the Muir students joined the Japanese visitors for a sweet treat and green tea.
Kyrie, or Japanese paper cutting, artist Kuge showed students in Fatima Morales’ art class the intricate art form’s technique. Kuge was in Los Angeles to open an exhibit at the Japan Foundation, which runs through November 8.
“It’s very different from where I’m from,” said Rebun student Rei Sato, who was enjoying the southern California weather. “It is very pretty and the atmosphere is very nice. I have a very good impression of America.”
“The people in Burbank were very friendly,” commented Rebun student Yuito Miyazaki. “So many students knew Japanese culture and anime.”