When students from Great Falls Elementary School arrived at Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution in Fukuyama, Japan in late June, they were greeted with a warm reception that they will never forget.
“The kids treated us like movie stars and asked us for autographs, so you had a whole line of like 20 kids just waiting for you to sign your autograph for them,” said Eliza Campbell, 12.
From June 19 to July 1, Eliza and four other recently graduated sixth grade students from Great Falls Elementary School traveled with seven of their parents, four of their siblings and one teacher to Japan as part of the ongoing Great Falls Elementary School Japanese Immersion Program. Started with the help of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) 15 years ago, the program incorporates lessons on Japanese culture and language into the regular school curriculum.
In 2005, Great Falls Elementary established an official sister school relationship with the Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution in Fukuyama, Japan, and last summer, the first round of Great Falls students traveled to Japan to visit the school and stay with Japanese host families.
“Everyone in Japan was incredibly kind and generous to us during our 12-day visit, beginning with the host families and officials from our sister school at Hiroshima Kake Educational Institution in Fukuyama and ending with the First Lady of Japan, Akie Abe, who spent the afternoon with us at the Prime Minister's private residence in Tokyo,” said Eliza’s mother Betsy Campbell, who accompanied her daughter on the trip.
THE GROUP FLEW to Tokyo first, and then traveled to Fukuyama to stay with their host families. Eliza said staying with their host family was her favorite part of the trip.
“I liked the home-stay a lot because we got to see what their life was like and how they live,” she said. “They took us kimono shopping, and we got to do origami with an origami master.”
Eliza described her host family’s home as being similar to an apartment in the United States, only slightly smaller.
“But everything in Japan is smaller than in the U.S.,” she noted.
Eliza said it was interesting to see different cultural customs from her own.
“There they take off their shoes when they get into the house, and you have to shower before you get into the bathtub to soak because the whole family uses that same water for their bath,” said Eliza. “There was also a Tatami Room with Tatami mats all over the floor, so some of the girls slept in there on the floor on mattresses.”
Staying with their host families and traveling around Fukuyama also gave the students from Great Falls the chance to practice some of their Japanese. Eliza said she and the others felt a little shy about speaking at first, but eventually became braver because everyone was so understanding and encouraging. She added that she could understand bits and pieces of the Japanese conversation going on around her, but would usually have to ask people to repeat themselves.
During their visit to Kake Hiroshima Educational Institution the Great Falls Elementary School sixth graders visited with the Japanese students and practiced making origami with them. The Great Falls group also visited Hiroshima.
“That was a really moving experience, and now I sort of understand it more because I didn’t really understand it before,” said Eliza.
The group spent an additional three days in Tokyo before heading back to the U.S. on July 1.
“It was sort of like the U.S., like New York City in a way,” said Eliza about Tokyo. “We went shopping there, we sight-seed a little, we went to the mall and we got to meet the First Lady of Japan. She was really nice. In the beginning you were kind of wondering what she would be like, but she was so nice.”