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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.