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Japanese students immersed in English

Two Japanese middle school students are limiting their communication to English during a two-week visit in Ashland. They aren’t communicating with their families, and they voluntarily gave up speaking to each other in Japanese on the third day.

Hana Yoshimi and Chika Matsuda, both 14, are the vanguard for regular visits by students from Tokunoshima, a small island north of Okinawa. They were selected in a competition to make the trip. The island’s board of education launched the visits this year to boost English fluency and to assist the tourist industry there.

Retired professor Misao Makino, a Tokunoshima native, contacted Ken Kempner, a retired Southern Oregon University professor who had Makino as a graduate student at the University of Oregon. The pair set up the visit and arranged for home stays with families, English and cultural instruction in the mornings on the SOU campus, and afternoon activities.

“My favorites were Crater Lake, Diamond Lake and Jacksonville,” said Hana, when asked about trip highlights. “The movie ‘Lion King’ is a very good story,” said Chika.

The pair have also visited Mount Ashland, taken a jet boat excursion on the Rogue River, shopped at Costco and the Rogue Valley Mall, and dined at Five Guys Burgers. During the second week they got a pottery lesson with Kempner’s wife, Cheryl, who is with the Ashland Art Center.

The size of things in the U.S. is a real contrast to their home island, the girls said.

“There were big, huge watermelons at Costco. The shopping carts are very large,” said Hana. The clothes are big, as is the size of the houses, Chika added. Visiting the mall, where one can see and try on clothes, was also a new experience, as there are none on Tokunoshima, which has a population of 27,000.

“In Tokunoshima, it’s shopping online,” said Chika. “Amazon is very good.”

Pictures posted online of the girls in sunglasses they purchased at the mall are a sensation on Tokunoshima. It’s unusual for children to wear the eye gear there, said Yuki Tojo, a middle school English teacher from the island who is accompanying the girls and representing the board of education. Tojo reports daily to the board and the girls’ families.

“Both of them are very studious and patient and courteous,” said Kayla Rapet, an SOU education staff member. “They are comfortable enough to work things out, willing to step out of their comfort zones. They are striving for the full experience.” Rapet saw their independent attitude when the girls handled ordering their own treats at the movies.

The home stay components offered the girls another opportunity to practice their English, said Rapet.

Chika stayed in Ashland with Donna and Tyler Hokama. Hana stayed in Medford with Maura and Mike Mayerle the first week and was hosted by Mary and Steve Boyarsky the second. Makino stayed with the Kempners, and Yuki stayed in SOU residence halls.

“It’s a very good place, very cozy,” Chika said about Ashland. Both her home and Ashland are hot, but Ashland is dry compared to the island’s humid climate, she said.

Chika hopes to become a doctor, while Hana would like to be a flight attendant. Both girls plan to leave the island to attend a university, likely in Tokyo.

At home Chika is active in sports. Hana sings, plays the guitar, writes her own songs and has performed at a festival.

“It’s awesome good,” Chika said of her fellow student’s music.

The girls are keeping diaries requested by the board of education, but they have now shifted them to English from Japanese. That allows them to share their observations with their home stay families, said Tojo. They’ll transcribe them into Japanese when they return home.

Makino has visited Ashland at least five times and been involved in sending Japanese students to SOU. He is retired from Senshu University in Tokyo but has maintained regular contact with his home island. Tokunoshima’s mayor asked Makino to organize the visit last December.

Much of the island is within the borders of the Aman Gunto National Park. Next year it is scheduled to be designated as a UNESCO heritage site due to the presence of unique bird and animal species, Makino said.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

{ }Chika Matsuda, 14, left, and Hana Yoshima, 14, visited Crater Lake as part of their two-week visit to Southern Oregon. Jamie Lusch / Daily Tidings