The Rebun International Exchange Program celebrated its tenth anniversary with John Muir Middle School officials, a visiting group of 20 students and Rebun Island city and school officials at ceremony held at the Grand Canyon on Tuesday, September 20.
Rebun International Exchange Program Supervisor Dr. Akiko Agishi and staff welcomed the tenth group of Japanese tenth-grade students and officials to the celebration. They were joined by Muir Principal Dr. Greg Miller and Japanese Culture/English teacher Ted DeViriglis to mark the occasion.
Muir Middle School is an official Sister School with Rebun High School and has hosted the visiting students on their annual trips for many years.
The Japanese students performed the Yosakoi Dance during the ceremony, which also included performances and a sharing of cultural knowledge by Arizona-based multi-instrumentalist and singer Ken Koshio, drummer and flutist Miro Koshio, seven-time World Champion Hoop Dancer and Hopi-Choctaw Derrick Davis and musician and singer Ryon Polequaptewa, a Hopi born of the Sun Clan.
Rebun Mayor Toru Ono welcomed everyone to the Rebun International Exchange Program’s 10th Anniversary celebration.
“I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Agishi and everyone else who has been involved with this program. I still remember the promise I made with Dr. Agishi, ten years ago: ‘Let’s make it a long-lasting exchange project, not for a short while,'” Ono said.
“We celebrate this momentous occasion and I am able to fulfill my promise to Dr. Agishi,” he added. “So far, 55 Rebun High School students have participated in this exchange program and had eye-opening experience and personal growth.”
“The number of new students is increasing year by year,” Ono continued, as he thanked several people who have helped and hosted the Rebun students and emphasized the importance of learning. “I hope that this program will continue for many years to come and contribute to helping us understand each other. I hope that we continue to work together to widen our students’ horizons.”
The Rebun International Exchange Program grew out of a need to encourage families to stay on tiny Rebun Island, Japan’s northern-most island, located 30 miles northwest of Hokkaido, after fishing industry work dwindled. Rebun Island is part of Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park and is known for its nature and hiking trails. Rebun Island is five miles wide and 18 miles long and has a population of 2358 people.
When the student travel program began in 2012, there were only about two students per grade level attending the island’s school. Now, largely due to the popularity of the exchange program, there are approximately 20 students per grade level, with several families throughout Japan sending their students to board in the town and attend Rebun School during the school year.
Every member of the tenth-grade class is able to go on a trip to visit the U.S. for two weeks, usually in September. The students typically visit Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, different National Parks from Utah to California, Los Angeles, Disneyland, and schools including Muir, Notre Dame High School and University High School in Irvine.
Students stay with host families from Muir and Notre Dame for several days during the trip and learn about American life. They also perform the traditional Yosakoi Dance, which originated in Rebun, at schools and other events during this time.
Although the program had to pause for two years in 2020 and 2021, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the program is sending two groups in the fall of 2022: the 10th group of tenth-graders visit in September and the program’s ninth group, currently 11th-graders, will arrive in November.
The group of current seniors, who were to visit the U.S. in 2020, are not able to come for the usual two-week visit because they are all very busy preparing for senior-year tests. The 10th Anniversary celebration included video messages from all the seniors who had hoped to visit America but were unable, with many saying that although they were sad to miss the trip, they will continue to learn English and hope to visit the U.S. in the future.
“This is our dream come true for a special occasion at the Grand Canyon National Park… we are all together to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Rebun International Exchange Program, not only us from Japan but people from Arizona and Hopi and all our friends from Los Angeles and all over,” Agishi said at the 10th Anniversary event.
“We like to make a bridge for this very special, happy occasion to explore other [places], not only Japan, and beyond. This is actually a special beginning for future dream to be safe and happy and peaceful… everybody to stay happy and enjoy life together,” she added. “That’s our dream and Rebun tenth anniversary is just the beginning.”
“We were so sad because we couldn’t celebrate and meet all the wonderful students from Rebun [during the pandemic]. Every year we enjoy two weeks of special time, visiting National Parks here firstly, secondly with host families and with special Sister School and Dr. Greg Miller and Ted-sensei, who are really helping our special Sister School [program],” Agishi continued.
Muir Middle School officially became Sister Schools with Rebun High School in 2019. They have created a Sister School flag that features the mustang mascot of Muir and Atsumono, the orchid fairy mascot of Rebun Island.
“We’re so glad that you’re back… this program is a big part of what we do at Muir Middle School,” said Miller in his address at the event. “I am so glad that this program has been such a benefit to Rebun Town and Rebun School and Rebun students, but I have to say this program has been a huge blessing to Muir Middle School and our students.”
“For us, it’s the same idea. Our students get to learn about Japanese culture, Japanese people… but more importantly, our students get to interact with Japanese students as teenagers… and there are more similarities than differences.”
Miller talked about two of his favorite memories of the cultural exchange program: the setting of the world record for largest Japanese Fan Dance, the Hokkai Bon Uta, which involved not just students but many people from the community in 2017 and becoming Sister Schools in 2019. Muir has been hosting Japan Day activities since October 2013.
The Japanese Culture classes, called “JapanGo!” are electives and part of the wheel program. Out of 1500 Muir students in sixth through eighth grades, nearly half the sixth-grade class take JapanGo! every year.
“This is my fourth year teaching JapanGo! as part of the sixth grade wheel elective, where students get an elective class for 10 weeks,” explained sixth-grade English and Japanese Culture teacher DeVirgilis, who added that JapanGo! has a “double meaning: NihonGO [nihongo] means Japanese language, and I want the kids to GO to Japan and elsewhere.”
“Students in my class learn what the Japanese school experience is like, including cleaning the school: o-soji. My two classes clean the cafeteria and canteen once a week each. When they hear about o-soji, they are reticent,” added De Virgilis. “Then they do it and actually love cleaning with their friends and making their school look great. They complain if we are unable to clean one week.”
“We look at clips of Japanese films and find similarities and differences between our cultures. Finally, kids research different cultural topics and present it to class,” he continued.
“On the language side, they learn basic Japanese conversation, the numbers, colors, and describing words,” DeVirgilis also said. “Plus, every day they learn two hiragana characters, the phonetic ‘alphabet’ kids learn in Japan.”
Rebun School Principal Nobuya Tsuji expressed gratitude for the exchange program at the 10th Anniversary event.
“Rebun students really appreciate being in this program,” Tsuji said. “I hope this program will continue for 30 or more years.”
Rebun Town Assembly Speaker Kei Sasayama and Board of Education Superintendent Toshikazu Takenaka also spoke at the event. Other Rebun officials in attendance were Board of Education Vice-Superintendent Takashi Fujisawa, tenth-grade homeroom teacher Itaru Tanaka and tenth-grade math teacher Kenji Taniguchi.
The Rebun officials also honored Agishi, Miller, DeVirigilis, Program Coordinator Tak Iitomi and Program Assistant Yoshiko Shirotori at the celebration.
The new Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles, Kenko Sone, congratulated the organization on its tenth anniversary milestone and encouraged the young students for their futures in a video message played at the event.
After the performances by the Koshios, Davis and Polequaptewa, which included Taiko and Hopi drumming, Japanese and Hopi flutes and instruments, Hopi dances and singing, the Rebun students joined for a collaborative dance and performance.
Davis and Polequaptewa also shared knowledge of the Hopi and the area of the Grand Canyon, along with some special food – piki bread made from blue corn and Hopi tea made from the Greenthread plant – with the students and attendees.
After the festivities at the Grand Canyon, students at Muir Middle School welcomed the Rebun Island students with a host family potluck on Wednesday, September 21, and some activities for a mini-Japan Day on Thursday, September 22.
“I’m most excited to visit Disneyland,” commented 15-year-old Lisa Kumada about the student exchange trip. “The ice cream in Las Vegas was delicious and the Grand Canyon was beautiful.”
Fifteen-year-old Koshin Konno was a little tired from traveling, but he really liked the city view and the lights in Las Vegas.
At the Grand Canyon, “It was interesting to learn that going down the trail you are going back in time,” he said.
Konno added that he was “looking forward to staying with host families and visiting Disneyland.”
“With the pandemic restrictions, we endured so many false starts in connecting with our friends in Japan,” commented DeVirgilis. “This trip to the Grand Canyon – where the Hopi Indians taught us the importance of coming together across the earth and connecting with it – and the events at Muir this week had a deep impact on us all. That’s why there were so many tears when we said sayonara.”
“Luckily, we don’t have to wait too long to connect with Rebun again,” he also said. “There’s another group of Rebun students coming in November. The Muir Fundraising Committee will be helping us put together our eighth Muir Japan Day.”
Muir Middle School will hold its official Japan Day event in November with the visiting group of 11th graders, which involves a day of cultural activities for all the students to share. In the past Muir students have learned about kintsugi, flower-arranging, origami, Yosakoi Dance, Taiko drumming, paper cutting and tea ceremony, among other arts.