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Muir Middle School Celebrates Japan Day, Sister School Status With Rebun School

John Muir Middle School and Japan’s Rebun High School cemented their ongoing friendship with a Sister School proclamation at Muir’s seventh annual Japan Day celebration on Friday, September 20.

During the Burbank Board of Education meeting on Thursday evening, September 19, officials from the Consulate-General of Japan and Rebun High School joined visiting ninth-graders from Rebun, Muir teachers and administrators and Burbank Unified School District officials to officially announce the two schools Sister School status to the Burbank Board of Education.

John Muir Middle School announced Sister School status with Japan’s Rebun High School at a recent Burbank Board of Education meeting. Pictured are: (back row, left to right) Yaeko Hosobuchi, Deputy Consul General Hiroki Matsuo (Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles), Teacher Ted DeVirgilis (JMMS), Principal Dr. Greg Miller (JMMS), Rebun Principal Hiroyoshi Sakano, BUSD Board President Dr. Roberta Reynolds, BUSD Superintendent Dr. Matt Hill, Rebun Mayor Toru Ono, Rebun School Superintendent Osamu Iwaki, Rebun Town Exchange Coordinator Mamoru Suda, Rebun Town Councillor Yuichi Kashiwaya, Rebun Town Vice Superintendent Tatsumi Miura, Madam Fumi Akutagawa; (middle row, left to right) Exchange Coordinator Dr. Akiko Agishi, Rebun students Kaito Takagi, Noa Sasaki, Jin Tsushima; (front row, left to right) Rebun students Haruto Soma, Kansuke Kawamura, Kizuku Takamichi, Koya Komoto, Takeru Tada, Keisuke Nozaki. (Photo by Ross A Benson)

Visiting students from Rebun also performed the “Nanchu Sōran Bushi,” a traditional dance performed before fishing in the northern Hokkaido region of Japan where Rebun Island is located for school board members.

At the Friday afternoon Japan Day celebration, which is sponsored every year by the John Muir Booster Association, Muir students watched a short presentation on science teacher Eric Blinder’s visit to Japan this past summer, as he shared what he learned from visiting the country and meeting its people. He noted the similarities and differences between the school system in Japan and the U.S. and talked about his new experiences with food and the ease of public transportation.

Students at John Muir Middle School enjoy a shamisen musical performance at Japan Day festivities. (Photo By Connor McCrory)

“The students at Muir will remember the events of this week for some time – I know I will!” commented Muir teacher Ted DeVirgilis who has coordinated the annual Japan Day program at Muir for the past seven years. “The board meeting was a public proclamation of Muir’s commitment to deepening our international friendship with Rebun High School.”

“The Sister School commitment is basically to host each other’s students, strive to have our respective English and Japanese classes communicate (a la Skype or similar) intermittently, and look to connect via technology when we can,” explained DeVirgilis. “We are sending a group of students, teachers and Dr. Miller to Rebun Island next June and Rebun has agreed to have our students do a homestay there.”

At the Japan Day event, the nine visiting ninth-graders from Rebun High School all introduced themselves to the Muir students and each shared something they really liked as a hobby or about America. Muir students responded loudly to many of the shared interests and hobbies, such as music, basketball, hamburgers and more. The Rebun students again performed the “Nanchu Sōran Bushi.”

(Photo By Connor McCrory)

Visiting guest artist Sasaki Mitsuru performed traditional folk songs on the shamisen, a Japanese stringed instrument that was prominently featured in the 2016 stop-motion movie Kubo and the Two Strings. Mitsuru plays the tsugaru style shamisen, a fat neck type that is the largest and loudest of the shamisen.

“The dance by the Rebun students and the shamisen performance by guest artist Sasaki Mitsuru were loved by the whole school,” added. DeVirgilis. “Two Muir teacher-musicians, Steven Moos and Glen Jaffe, even joined the shamisen players onstage in an improvisation with mandolin and guitar.”

Every year, students from Rebun Island visit the U.S. and include a stop by Muir Middle School’s Japan Day, during which Muir students explore different aspects of Japanese arts and culture. In previous years, students learned about flower-arranging, origami, yasakoi dance, taiko drumming, paper cutting and tea ceremony, among other arts.

Rebun Principal Hiroyoshi Sakano (left) and Muir Principal Greg Miller (right) sign the Sister Schools proclamation at Muir’s Japan Day celebration on September 20, 2019. (Photo By Connor McCrory)

At Friday’s event, after the cultural activities, all Muir students joined the visiting Rebun students and officials, along with school faculty and administration on Mustang Field to witness the unveiling of the Sister School flag, which was designed by Muir teacher Amy Prosser and features the mascot of each school.

Muir Principal Greg Miller and Rebun Principal Hiroyoshi Sakano both said a few words and signed the Sister School proclamation.

Vice-Consul Yuichiro Tanaka, of the Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles, also spoke. He mentioned that when he was the age of Muir students, who are in their early teens, his family moved to Australia.

Tanaka said the experience changed his life and opened up many possibilities. He encouraged Muir students to visit other countries and expose themselves to other cultures.

(Photo By Connor McCrory)

“I love that we now have a Sister School flag that will be raised below the American Flag for future Japan Days,” DeViriglis also said. “The support from the Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles was incredible.”

“We were visited by the Deputy Consul, a Vice Consul, and the actual Consul General over the course of three days. On Saturday at a small event at Japan House (Hollywood/Highland), Akira Muto, Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles, congratulated Muir and Rebun High School on our Sister School status.”

“It’s amazing what can happen if your show an appreciation for another culture,” DeVirgilis added. “Muir was already ‘famous for friendliness’ but now Muir and Burbank are known in Japan and the Japanese-American community as a place where Japanese culture is appreciated.”

Students from Rebun High School in Japan perform “Nanchu Sōran Bushi,” a Hokkaido fishing dance, for Burbank Board of Education members during the school board meeting. (Photo By Ross A Benson)

Forty-seven Muir students, along with school officials and chaperones, are planning a trip to Japan in 2020.

“For Muir’s trip to Japan next May and June, the Governor of Hokkaido Prefecture will be meeting us to honor our continued exchange with Rebun, and the U.S. Consulate in Sapporo will be hosting a barbecue for us,” DeVirgilis said.

“All of this is because Japan Day – and our friendship with Rebun – has grown over the past seven years.”

Muir Middle School Hosts Sixth Annual Japan Day

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.

 

Muir Japan Day Honors International Guests

Muir Japan Day honored visitors from the tiny island of Rebun, Japan, on Friday, September 23. The international guests – high school students, the mayor and other dignitaries from Rebun, shared origami paper folding, ikebana flower arranging and yasakoi dance with students at John Muir Middle School in Burbank.

“This—our fourth Japan day—was the best yet!” enthused Muir English teacher and coordinator of Muir Japan Day, Ted DeVirgilis.

(Photo by © Ross A. Benson)

(Photo by © Ross A. Benson)

“The Muir kids had a great time creating origami, and the ikebana class was something special. Thirty Muir students were able to bring home a beautiful flower arrangement to their families, and they learned an art that not many Americans get to experience.”

“We are grateful to both the Muir Parent Boosters and Muir ASB for the funds to bring in the teaching artists.”

Madame Fumi Akutagawa, a Little Tokyo legend and Muir Japan Day regular instructor, led 70 students in an origami workshop in the Muir Library.

Photo By Lisa Paredes

Photo By Lisa Paredes

Kaz Kitajima showed students how to create ikebana flower arrangements in the Sogetsu style. Kitajima is renowned throughout California for his dynamic arrangements of bamboo, pine and flowers.

During the week leading up to Japan Day, Muir students learned daily Japanese phrases from the morning announcements, in order to greet the visitors in Japanese.

(Photo by © Ross A. Benson)

(Photo by © Ross A. Benson)

The visiting Rebun high schoolers performed a yasakoi dance to about half the school population.

“The Muir kids and teachers loved the high-energy dance and many stayed to talk to the students afterwards about manga, anime and other shared interests,” added DeVirgilis.

The visit is important for the Rebun kids as well, explained DeVirgilis. The Japanese students practiced speaking English and seeing more of the world.

“Rebun island is so isolated, the two weeks they spend in Los Angeles and around California  are transformative,” he said. “The teachers back in Rebun have said previous student travelers on this exchange now have increased confidence in school, and their outlook on life and their future is expanded.”

Photo By Lisa Paredes

Photo By Lisa Paredes

“It’s the same for Americans who are able to travel too,” he also said.

Although there are no current plans to send Burbank students to Rebun, every year Burbank high school students are selected to travel to one of Burbank’s two sister cities in Asia: Ota, Japan and Incheon, Korea.

Student exchanges to Gaborone, Botswana, are also planned. Visit burbanksistercity.org for more information.

“John Muir is truly a destination for cultural exchange, and I look forward to more exchanges with different cultures in the future, because of the continued success of Japan Day,” said DeVirgilis.