Japanese and American children enjoy cultural exchange

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Forty Japanese and 35 American fifth graders had a play date Saturday, in hopes of learning a little bit more about each other's culture.

The play date was part of the 15th Annual Children's Cultural Exchange.

The program first started when Simon Bernard began working at the Shimoda (now Oirase Town) Mayor's Office.

"The mayor asked me to start a program to promote international culture awareness for young children," he said. "So I started the classes for fifth and sixth grade (Japanese) children, not only to give them a head start in learning English, but also to show them how fun it can be."

At the beginning of every school year Mr. Bernard visits the three local elementary schools in Oirase Town, soliciting for participants in the Children's Cultural Exchange. The program has grown throughout the years.

"We have so many children sign up that now I have to hold three to four different exchanges per year," Mr. Bernard said. The fifth grade exchange was the first for this school year. A sixth grade exchange will be held in December, with a third exchange scheduled for March.

The exchanges could not happen without the support of Misawa Air Base school officials, as well as Japanese and American volunteers. The school officials offer a location for the exchange as well as support in gathering American children for participation. The volunteers help with the games.

"The volunteers and I prepare the games so that the children can interact," explained Mr. Bernard. "One game included the children memorizing a child of the other culture's name and telling everyone. After the games, we fed the children pizza and drinks. Then we had a gift exchange."

The cultural exchange can have a big impact on both the American and Japanese kids. According to Jim Journey, Sollars Elementary School principal, many of the children never go off base, so having the opportunity to interact with the local children can make a big impression.

"On the Japanese side, the children go home and tell their parents, grandparents and siblings what fun they had, so the ripples of American goodwill go out into the local community," said Mr. Bernard.

Those ripples can go far. Some of the children that participated in the program 15 years ago are now working at the town hall.

"These are the future leaders of the community and their impression of Americans bodes well for the future of Misawa Air Base," Mr. Bernard said.