“How many of you have gone camping?“ Chikako Usui asked a packed room at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“Ah that’s very good,” she said as the majority of the crowd raised their hands. “Given the place we’re going it’s not a vacation trip. It’s more of an educational trip.”
On Dec. 16, Usui, associate professor of sociology at UMSL and president of the Japan America Society of St. Louis, held the first of two informational meetings on a U.S.–Japan exchange program that she created. It will involve a one-week trip to Ishinomaki, Japan, one of the hardest-hit areas by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Participants will tour disaster areas, visit with volunteer groups who have been involved in the long-term reconstruction efforts and participate in a two-day festival of Ishinomaki. They’ll also stay in the temporary housing that was built to accommodate residents after the disaster, which many still inhabit.
“If you have to have your own toilet and your own room this trip may not be for you,” Usui joked.
The trip is planned for late July 2014.
The 2014 St. Louis/Ishinomaki Friendship Program is open to middle and high school students, from 7th to 11th grade, who are at least 12 years old at the time they apply. Eight to 10 students will be chosen. Interested students don’t need to have any prior experience with Japan or Japanese culture. In addition, the program is also looking for two young adults, ages 22-34, to act as chaperones. Applicants must have some ability to converse in Japanese. Priority is being given to American citizens.
The next informational meeting will be from 5:45 to 7:15 pm Jan. 14 in 331 Social Science and Business Building. Applicants are required to attend one meeting. For student participants, at least one of their parents must attend the meeting.
The trip is free of charge. Participants will need to bring their own spending money. The exchange program is funded by a grant from the National Association of Japan-America Societies and Tomodachi, a public-private partnership between the U.S.-Japan Council and State Department that supports Japan’s quake recovery.
“The goal of the trip is to promote friendship and mutual understanding of different cultures and invest in the next generation of Japanese and American relations,” Usui said “It’s a unique people to people exchange.”
The initial phase of the exchange occurred this past summer when five middle and high school students from Ishinomaki and their four chaperones visited St. Louis from Aug. 28–Sept. 5. During their visit to St. Louis, they stayed with American host families and participated in the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.