East Hawaii News

Cultural Exchange: Students From Okinawa, Japan, Experience Life on The Big Island

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Students from Nago City, Okinawa, Japan, a Sister City of Hawai’i County, pose for a photo with their peers at Hilo High School on Tuesday, Aug. 23. (Photos by Nathan Christophel)

Twelve students from Okinawa, Japan, are getting the full Big Island experience this week.

The students hail from Nago City, which has been a Sister City to Hawai‘i County since 1986. They represent four schools from throughout the Okinawan city and are here as part of an annual study abroad program that has been at the heart of the Sister City relationship between the two communities since its inception, according to Jane Clement, an executive assistant to Mayor Mitch Roth who is in charge of the county’s Sister Cities program.

The students from Nago City, who part of a study abroad program and are visiting the Big Island this week, perform a traditional Eisa, a Bon dance that originated in the Okinawan Islands, Tuesday at Hilo High School.

On Tuesday, Aug. 23, the Okinawan contingency of 14- and 15-year-olds got to visit with some of their Big Island peers at Hilo High School to get a feel for what it’s like to eat together in a cafeteria during school. Clement said that in Japan, schools don’t have a cafeteria and students bring lunch from home.

“What I really wanted to do was to give them that experience of, you know, lining up to get lunch in a cafeteria. So that’s kind of one of the reasons why we really wanted to have a school experience, like a Hawai’i school experience,” Clement told Big Island Now on Tuesday.

The Nago City students also performed a traditional Eisa, a Bon dance that originated in the Okinawan Islands, and danced with their new Hilo High friends before having lunch at the school Tuesday.

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Clement added that Tuesday’s cultural exchange was also a great opportunity for Hilo High students learning Japanese to speak with native Japanese speakers and the Okinawan students to speak with native English speakers. A big part of the annual exchange program is for the Nago City students to practice speaking English with native English speakers.

Not only did they get to practice with their Hilo High peers Tuesday, but they also had two English classes earlier in the week with kūpuna on the island who are retired teachers.

“They volunteered their time, three hours a day, to teach the kids just simple phrases, simple words, and then they do some speaking exercises with the kids,” Clement said.

The Japanese students arrived Aug. 19 and are spending the week learning about Hawaiian culture and life in the islands. Part of the exchange program is staying with host families, usually in the Hilo area, to immerse the students in what it’s like to live on the Big Island. The home stays were Saturday and part of Sunday and the students were treated by their host families to activities they would normally do on weekends.

“In Hawai’i, we have a very diverse culture,” Clement said. “We are very accepting here. We are very inclusive here, and I want the children to actually see that. … It’s a very different culture from where they’re from, and that’s the whole purpose of the home stay is to see what it’s like to be in a family in Hawai‘i.”

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The students got to have experiences such as eating shave ice for the first time, playing basketball and shopping at Target and Hilo Farmers Market, among others. Clement said one of the exchange students was awed they got to eat breakfast at home. Another was amazed he was served such a large portion of ice cream; she said he told her with wide eyes.

“These are the kind of experiences they will never forget,” Clement said. “I hope that they leave here with good memories and good impressions of Hawai‘i.”

The students also get other experiences throughout the week before leaving for home Aug. 28.

They visited ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center on Monday in Hilo and will get a cultural experience during a visit to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. They will visit Parker Ranch in Waimea and the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i in Kona. Other items on their itinerary include another school experience at West Hawai‘i Explorations Academy Public Charter School in Kona, learning more about Hawaiian culture at Hulihe‘e Palace in Kona and preparing soil for taro at Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook.

“So it’s not only learning English, it’s also learning about Hawaiian culture,” Clement said.

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So far, the students are enjoying their time on the island — and its people, scenery and food.

Ichika Kima said the people of the island are kind and interesting. The 14-year-old’s favorite part of the visit so far, however, has been Hawaiian sweets, especially shave ice. Ichika got to indulge in the frozen treat two days ago, having it topped with mochi, condensed milk and strawberry.

“Yummy, yummy,” Ichika said.

Saki Onishi also mentioned food. The 15-year-old is especially fond of poke.

They each have experienced the island in their own ways since being here, including visits to the ocean and waterfalls and even getting to play laser tag. Both said, however, that it’s the people of the Big Island who have made some of the most lasting impressions.

Ichika Kima, center left, and Saki Onishi, center right, who part of the contingency of students from Nago City visiting the Big Island this week, speak Tuesday with their peers at Hilo High School before having lunch with them in the school’s cafeteria.

“Hawaiian people are so friendly,” Saki said.

“I want to tell Okinawan people about Hawaiian people; they are kind and interesting,” Ichika said. “And I want to show them Hawaiian pictures.”

Shoko Chiba, an advisor for the Nago City Board of Education School Education Division who is with the students on the trip, said the experience has been amazing. She said the children have had a really good time and experience so far.

Chiba added that the trip is a chance for the exchange students to experience Hawai‘i and hopes that upon their return home, they will share that with the people of Okinawa.

Clement said the experience will give the Nago City students a better understanding of the world outside of Okinawa. It also will benefit the Sister City relationship between Nago City and Hawai‘i County by strengthening their ties and forging a deeper friendship.

“These students will get to go back to their city and share about Hawai‘i Island and their wonderful experiences here and hopefully invite others to come and see it for themselves,” she said.

Roth agreed.

“We hope each student from Nago City will depart with an embedded sense of our culture and aloha spirit that can be shared with their friends and families back home — hopefully invoking a lasting sense of connection and belonging between our homelands,” the mayor told Big Island Now in an emailed statement Tuesday.

He said Hawai‘i and Japan have a unique connection that has played a significant role in the development of both island chains through generations — a connection that hopefully can be a continued tradition.

“That said, we must continue building our relationships with our friends and families outside of our shorelines, and we hope this trip will be the first of many, not only for their students but for ours,” Roth said in the statement.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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