Haddonfield Japan Exchange celebrates another year of fostering friendships

From July 22 to Aug. 3, students from the Kasukabe Girls’ Senior High School lived with Haddonfield host families and experienced a taste of American culture.

From July 22 to Aug. 3, students from the Kasukabe Girls’ Senior High School in Japan experienced a taste of American culture as Haddonfield families hosted 16 visitors through the Haddonfield Japan Exchange program.

Since creating the exchange in 2006, Bill Brown’s goal for the program has been twofold: for exchange students to learn English and develop enduring friendships. Now, as Brown steps down from his role as director of the program, he’s satisfied to have had another successful year of fostering international friendships. Brown said many students were emotional about leaving when they were being dropped off at the airport Thursday morning.

“Many tears were shed as they departed,” Brown said. “That’s how I always measure the success of the program — by the tears shed.”

This year’s program did not initially go off without a hitch, however. The principal of Kasukabe high school, Kogure Yuji, asked that female students are only hosted by families with daughters. The request cut the Haddonfield Japan Exchange’s number of host families in half, forcing program to double up students at the remaining host homes.

Brown said in the past, they found when students are doubled up, they tend to just speak to each other and, therefore, aren’t as apt to learn English. However, Brown found this year’s group to be particularly engaged, with the two chaperones from Kasukabe, Aya Ikegami and Takahashi Shinichi, taking on active roles.

Throughout their stay, Kasukabe students were exposed to local slices of life, with the exchange taking them to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, down the Shore to Sea Isle and tubing on the Delaware River.

For Ikegami, however, the most fulfilling part of the experience has been the people.

“The people of Haddonfield — their hospitality is amazing,” Ikegami said. “I didn’t expect this much because I came here as my job.”

She said the warmth of Haddonfield residents certainly impacted her students as well. Ikegami said Japanese students tend to be more reserved and shy, and she was shocked as to how the experience opened the 16 young ladies up. For instance, when visiting the National September 11 Memorial in New York, one of Ikegami’s students who was born after the 9/11 tragedy told Ikegami she felt moved by being at the memorial. She said her students wouldn’t typically be so forthcoming with their emotions, and she was excited to see the girls open up over the course of their two weeks in Haddonfield.

Shinichi echoed Ikegami’s sentiments. He said prior to their arrival, both he and his students were nervous about coming to Haddonfield. He said fears about being in a foreign country and not speaking very much English were quickly alleviated by the the hospitality of the Haddonfield host families and residents. He said when he walked around town, people said hello, which is something he wouldn’t experience in Japan. He said as a culture, Japanese people don’t typically talk to strangers.

For 16-year-old Kana Suganuma, one of the most surprising cultural differences was bathing. She said Americans tend to take showers whereas in Japan they take baths.

For Suganuma, the most rewarding part of the experience was getting to use her English words and learning some new ones. She said she’ll miss the people she met in Haddonfield along the way.

“People are very kind,” Suganuma said. “I like them.”

At the program’s Sayonara Dinner held at Tavistock Country Club on Wednesday, Aug. 2, the 16 Kasukabe students sang in both Japanese and English for their host families while wearing yukatas, which are summer kimonos. The girls also performed a choreographed dance to the delight of those in attendance who clapped and cheered them on.

As part of his departing words that evening, Shinichi said when Haddonfield students come to Japan next year, he plans to extend to them the same hospitality they showed their Japanese visitors.

“Now it’s our turn,” Suganuma said. “I’d like to return the favor next year in Japan. I’m not sure how much we can pay [them] back, but we’ll do our best.”