Muir Middle School Hosts Sixth Annual Japan Day

japan day
The combined drum players from Rebun High School and Little Toyko taiko group Chikara Daiko are joined by members of the Muir Japan Go! class. ( Photo by Ross A Benson)

Nine high school students from the tiny island of Rebun, Japan, visited John Muir Middle School on Friday, September 21, for the sixth annual Japan Day cultural appreciation activities.

Principal Dr. Greg Miller welcomed the visiting students and their two teacher chaperones and addressed the Muir student body. He showed photos from his recent summer scholarship trip to Japan and Rebun Island and talked about learning from different cultures through travel and international exchange.

Gankyo Nakamura, the first American to be accepted to Japan’s top kabuki school, gave a presentation on kabuki theater in the auditorium and answered students’ questions after his performance.

L/R Muir’s Asst Principal Catherine Celeya, Rebun International Exchange Program Dir. Dr. Akiko Agishi, Rebun Town Education Superintendent Mr. Kono and Ted DeVirgilis (Japan Day Chair and English Teacher.) (Photo by Ross A Benson)

The day ended with a collaborative taiko drum performance by the nine students from Rebun High School and a Little Tokyo taiko group, Chikara Daiko, on Muir’s Mustang Field. The musicians exchanged videos over the summer, each group learning one of the other’s songs, in order to perform at Japan Day, explained English teacher and Japan Day Chair, Ted De Virgilis.

“To have their first performance come off without a missed beat was staggering,” commented De Virgilis. “You can’t help but feel moved—literally—by over a dozen drums pounding in sync to a packed house on Mustang Field.”

Muir students sit on Mustang field enjoying a collaborative taiko drum performance by the students from Rebun High School and Little Tokyo group Chikara Daiko. ( Photo by Ross A. Benson)

“Muir does a great job of teaching kids about cultures around the world,” added De Virgilis. “Rebun High School and Muir have agreed to become ‘sister schools,’ which unlike Sister Cities, is an unofficial term, and we are figuring out what that could lead to in the future.”

“In the short term, we are hoping to have Muir students take part in a live stream with the English class at Rebun High School—as soon as December.”

“Because the interest in Japanese culture has grown so much over the past six years, the BUSD board approved the creation of a Japanese culture class as part of the 10-week sixth grade wheel program (along with Cooking, Art and Spanish classes),” said De Virgilis.

japan day
The combined drum players from Rebun High School and Little Toyko taiko group Chikara Daiko are joined by members of the Muir Japan Go! class. ( Photo by Ross A Benson)

“This summer I developed the [Japan Go!] class based on my experiences studying Japanese language, visiting Japan and learning from the many Japanese-American teaching artists who have taught Muir students as part of Japan Day. The first 10-week class is going quite well, and had the bonus of preparations for—and special access within—Japan Day.”

As the northernmost island in Japan, Rebun and its fishing industry have been negatively affected by rising sea temperatures and many people have left the island. Every year, some students from Rebun High School, with a total enrollment of 24, travel to the U.S for a two-week visit. The island of Rebun is a national park, so Rebun students visit different U.S. National Parks each year, in addition to other cities and points of interest.

Drummers from Japan’s Rebun High School and Little Tokyo Chikara Daiko perform. ( Photo by Ross A. Benson)

The cultural exchange program was created to encourage families to stay on the island, by providing students with the chance to travel and learn abroad and return with their new knowledge and experiences. The Rebun International Exchange Program is supervised by Akiko Agishi, president of Creative Enterprise International Inc & Japanese Language Scholarship Foundation (Aurora Foundation).

Muir families hosted the Rebun students in their homes for five nights during their visit, before the group left to visit the Grand Canyon. Muir’s annual Japan Day is sponsored and funded by the John Muir Booster Association.

In June 2020, a group of 20-30 students from Muir Middle School will visit Japan and Rebun Island for the first time as part of the “sister schools” cultural exchange.