St. Johnsbury Academy welcomed a group of 30 competitively selected students from the Kaijo Gakuen boys' school in Tokyo since 1989. The boys stayed with host families and followed host students through their daily schedules during the 10-day trip, March 20-29. They also visited tourist attractions in the Northeast Kingdom and Boston.
Several traditions have developed over the course of the 25-year program: the boys participate in a Welcome and Farewell Chapel each year and perform for host families and faculty members at a Farewell Banquet.
This year marked the inception of another event that is likely to become a tradition of the of the Kaijo boys' visit. As Ryuichiro "Long" Okada, a resident student from Osaka, Japan, thought about his Senior Capstone project, he decided that he wanted to increase interest in the Japanese language program at the Academy. He saw an opportunity to expand students' knowledge about Japanese language and culture as part of the Kaijo students' visit. He planned a Japanese Culture Festival -- to be put on by the boys from Kaijo as part of their visit -- highlighting many important aspects of Japanese culture by the fireside in Mayo Center.
There were stations featuring origami folding, Japanese calligraphy, green tea tasting and a mini presentation on holidays and special events celebrated in Japan throughout the year. The festival, which took place March 25, was a great success. Long had planned for it to last an hour, but it stretched to over two as Academy students mingled with the Kaijo students and learned about their home. Long hopes that the festival would continue in future years and plans to leave detailed instructions so that other students can plan and organize it going forward.
The trip to St. Johnsbury Academy from Tokyo is a much-anticipated annual event for the students at the Kaijo Gakuen school. Thirty students are selected from the 80 that apply based on an essay and an interview. Final selections are by lottery. As Kaijo chaperone and English teacher, Koichiro Yamaguchi said, those who are selected are "lucky boys." This was Yamaguchi's second visit to Vermont with his students. He has been impressed with the strong relationships that form between teachers and students at the Academy. He said, "Students and teachers are very respectful of one another here. There is more distance in Japan." He also spoke of the kindness of the people and the beauty of the Northeast Kingdom. He hopes to chaperone the trip again in the years to come.
Once the Kaijo boys arrive in Vermont, they meet the host families with whom they stay for the duration of their trip. Each year, they spend the first weekend with them, taking part in activities ranging from shopping to skiing. This year, they also visited The Pump House at Jay Peak, and Goodrich's Maple Farm, went bowling and had an opportunity to tour Boston for a day at the end of their trip.
Daiki Ajiro, one of the Kaijo students, expressed disappointment at having to take time away from his host family for activities such as bowling or the Boston trip because he wanted to talk with native English speakers and continue to improve his English. He had lived in Utah for two years, moving back to Japan when he was in fourth grade. Five years later, after having finished ninth grade, he was pleasantly surprised at how quickly he regained his English skills. "People told me that I speak unaccented English," he said happily. Daiki's favorite things about visiting the Academy were talking with people and making new friends. He hopes to return to the United States for college and expressed how thrilled he was to have been able to make the journey to Vermont.
The Kaijo program also functions as an exchange between St. Johnsbury Academy and the Kaijo Gakuen School. Academy students have visited the school there annually since 1994. Japanese teacher, Joseph Mesics, said, "It is an amazing opportunity for our local students to travel to Asia and experience life in Japan. The group of fewer than 10 students not only attends classes in Japanese high schools, but they are also immersed in Japanese family life with host families for a short time during their visit. Some students return to Japan on summer scholarships or after graduating from St. Johnsbury Academy and a good number continue their Japanese language studies at the next level."
Thomas Lovett, St. Johnsbury Academy Headmaster, said, "Our partnership with Kaijo can be seen as an example for the rest of the world: we speak different languages, yet find ways to understand each other; we enjoy only a very short visit, yet establish long lasting friendships; we have both endured tragedies, but remain a sign of hope, peace and understanding. All of this would not be possible without sacrifice and trust on the part of numerous Academy families who receive these students into their homes, and the Kaijo families' trust in us to take good care of them. Every year I am heartened by the genuine and heartfelt good will this program generates."
The Kaijo boys' trip to St. Johnsbury is an exceptional experience for both the boys and for the students who host and befriend them. When the group headed back to Japan after visiting the Academy, the boys were in school for only a short time before students from the Academy arrived at Kaijo Gakuen. They are always warmly welcomed by their friends from Kaijo whom they met in Vermont only weeks before.