Haddonfield Memorial High School students recently returned from a two-week trip to Japan arranged by the Haddonfield Japan Exchange (HJPEX), the first after a three-year hiatus during COVID.
The exchange group of 17 students and two chaperones stayed with host families in Sendai, Japan, for two weeks in June and this month and participated in a number of cultural experiences, including a taiko drum performance and instruction on a proper tea ceremony.
“I would definitely say the goal of the HJPEX is educational, but it’s not just, ‘Open a textbook and learn about Japanese history from A-Z,’ but more about open mindedness and finding commonality with new people, and finding you have more in common than maybe you expect that you did,” explained chaperone Margaret Gammie, a history teacher at the high school.
For Jack Novak, a rising senior at Haddonfield Memorial, the exchange experience allowed him to be more independent, while embracing diversity and new experiences.
“We got to learn about all these new cultures who were different from us, but in many ways, very similar,” he recalled. “We found friends who lived in Japan who had the same favorite artist as us, or liked the same games that we played and that was really cool.”
Novak was struck by the Japanese focus on cleanliness, something he took back home with him.
“Whatever you think is the cause for (Japan’s cleanliness), it’s not some big thing that’s keeping it clean,” he noted. “It’s not that they have hundreds of workers, it’s that every person takes an extra mile to clean up after themselves, always. All the time. So that was a really big thing to see.
“Everywhere you go, people leave it cleaner than they find it,” the student added. “At a train station, restaurant, baseball game, at the end of the baseball game, we cleaned everything up and left no mess, which is obviously extremely different than if you went to a Phillies game. That was a big shock.”
During their trip, the exchange students traveled to the countryside and visited an elementary school that had been destroyed by a tsunami after a deadly earthquake in 2011. Their guide was a man who lost his 10-year-old daughter and learned English to communicate with visitors.
“Students who tried to run up the hill were pulled back by teachers who were told to keep everyone contained, because there was uncertainty, and tried to manage the elementary school and keep the kids together,” Novak recalled the guide saying.
“His mission was to say that the first thing you do is run to safety.”
The Haddonfield Japan Exchange alternates student visits to Japan with that country’s student visits to the borough. Its board is preparing to host next year’s group of students and asks anyone who would like to volunteer as a host or as part of the planning process to sign up at https://www.hjex.org/.