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The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

Japan Exchange Program combines culture and education

Students who participate in Japan Exchange Program are exposed to traditional Japanese culture through attending school with native students and seeing traditional architecture.

Nearly 15 years ago, students gathered on stage during the opening school ceremony at their sister school in Osaka, Japan when the speaker asked them if they knew any songs in Japanese.

The Japan Exchange Program (JEP) has existed for almost 25 years and is one of the experiences that students studying Japanese look forward to most. Participants travel for roughly seven days with their mentors Eio and Japanese teacher Fukiko Shapiro. They visit cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Kamakura, as well as Shirakawa-go village.

World Language Curriculum Coordinator Rachel Eio was present on stage at the sister school in Osaka as the events unfolded. Eio said her students used their knowledge from an introductory Japanese course to put a smile on everyone’s faces.

“All of my students looked at each other and scratched their heads, thinking, ‘What is the song that we all know?’ Without me saying anything, they all broke out into Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” Eio said. “They remembered it from the Japanese I class. The whole place lost it, and everybody was laughing. It was the one thing they could all come up with, unstaged, with hundreds of people watching.”

While Tokyo is a destination many students know about, Shirakawa-go is not as well-known. Shapiro said it is more secluded, allowing visitors to see older, traditional housing styles.

“The students know a lot about Tokyo and watch movies or anime. They already know a lot of information,” Shapiro said. “But for the rural area, it’s a little bit unusual to see, especially when you go by yourself. It’s not easy to go there. It’s a great opportunity for us to take them to see how different it is.”

The exchange program rotates between visits each school year. Students will travel to Japan in April of 2024, and Kyoto Gaidai Nishi High School students will come to the United States the following year.

Administrative Assistant of JEP Marie Cross said on top of the language difference, the school environment in Japan is different from that of the United States.

“I think a key difference is the schedules. Next year, when students from Brookline [come to Japan], they’re coming at the start of our school year. In the States, that would be the second term,” Cross said. “Also, we wear a uniform as opposed to casual clothes, so that’s a difference. And in terms of homeroom teachers, your duties, it’s a lot more hands on.”

During the exchange, participants live with a host family in Kyoto for a few days. Shapiro said this experience is what sets the program apart from regular tourism.

“If you have the money and time, you can travel to Japan whenever you want, but you cannot get a homestay family experience. That’s the highlight,” Shapiro said.

Students also spend time shadowing a host student at Kyoto Gaidai Nishi High School. Classes they attend include homeroom, physical education, cooking and English. Students usually do not attend classes like history or chemistry, which require a higher language skill level.

Eio said while the trip is an exciting experience, the teachers supervising the trip also carry a big responsibility.

“You become not just their tour guide, teacher and chaperone, but you also become their mom, their parent, their nurse and their social worker,” Eio said. “[Students] may have lots of other people in [their lives] who help care for [them], but for those two weeks, it’s Ms. Shapiro and me.”

Many students have been waiting for years to participate in the exchange. Shapiro said it is one of the many experiences that motivate students to enroll in Japanese classes.

“It’s really rewarding for me,” Shapiro said. “Finally, their dream can come true. I can take them to the country they really want to go to.”

However, one of the biggest challenges the program faces is funding. The cost of traveling to Japan is expensive. The program also needs sufficient funds to offer scholarships for participants needing financial aid.

“We used to get funding from the Cherry Blossom Festival, but the festival didn’t happen during COVID,” Shapiro said. “Right now, we still don’t know if we can [continue the fundraising].”

Despite these challenges, the program continues to provide students with a unique cultural experience. The length of the program is only a fragment of the students’ time within the Japanese curriculum, but according to Eio, it creates connections that can last a lifetime.

“I don’t often have the experience of seeing something new there for the first time, but to have the opportunity to see Japan through students’ eyes is beautiful,” Eio said. “It’s truly why we do it.”

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