Laughter is universal at Blair International Baccalaureate High School in Pasadena for (from left) Manual Flores, Mayuko Tanahashi, Cesar Quintana, Nagisa Wada and Maria Flores. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)
Laughter is universal at Blair International Baccalaureate High School in Pasadena for (from left) Manual Flores, Mayuko Tanahashi, Cesar Quintana, Nagisa Wada and Maria Flores. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Writer

PASADENA.–The bell has rung, and it’s a day of typical activity in the culinary arts class at Blair International Baccalaureate High School in Pasadena. Several students restlessly settle in, a couple have on earphones and their noses buried in books, and one is scanning the blackboard for some notes she had missed.

On this particular Friday, however, something was unfamiliar, drawing the interest of a small group who were craning their necks to look over the electronic translator brought to class by a new student from Japan, Akiko Seikai.

The 17-year-old is one of more than 50 from Kyoto Girls Junior and Senior High School who are attending several public schools in Pasadena on a week-long exchange.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go abroad is to help improve my English,” said Kyoto student Nagisa Wada, 18. “Hopefully, I want to make friends all over the world and in the future, I want to be able to communicate with everyone.”

A quick language lesson covers common Japanese phrases.
A quick language lesson covers common Japanese phrases.

Blair became an IB school after a 2003 state review was prompted by lackluster academic performance. The school retooled its curriculum to fit the standards of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, which is designed to prepare secondary students for higher education at institutions worldwide.

Principal Trudell Skinner said the exchange with the young people and instructors from Kyoto is fittingly in line with Blair’s core values.

“We’re an International Baccalaureate program, so we are global citizens,” Skinner said. “That’s a large part of our philosophy and goals, to appreciate and understand different cultures.”

Other Pasadena-area schools participating include John Muir High School, Marshall High School and Pasadena High School.

At Kyoto Girls Junior and Senior High School, students have the opportunity to participate in the Wisteria Course, a program that emphasizes the traditions of Japanese culture, then turns its focus to other nations of the world. The exchange with schools in the United States is in its third year.

“Japan is an island. We have one language, one mind, one idea of what’s normal,” said Mayumi Mizoue, a home economics teacher at the Kyoto school. “This is a chance for all of us to meet others, to feel a change, to feel the world in our hearts.”

One of the crew of faculty members who have accompanied the students on the trip, Mizoue said the journey is a priceless opportunity to acknowledge and respect one another, and to understand our similarities as well as our differences.

Blair junior Kelsey Verrret, one of the student guides, is spending the week with Chinami Ohno of Kyoto.

“My English teacher one day asked if we wanted to be a part of the exchange program, to help guide the students from Japan. I didn’t think I was going to be chosen, but I tried anyway,” she explained. “Ms. Skinner called us down from our sixth-period class and I thought I was in some kind of trouble, but when she said I was picked to be with one of the students, I was really surprised.”

Chinami Ohno, left, listens as Kelsey Verrett explains her homework during her culinary arts class.
Chinami Ohno, left, listens as Kelsey Verrett explains her homework during her culinary arts class.

Articulate and expressive beyond her years, Verrett said she was excited about the prospect of meeting one of her peers from a faraway land.

“When I get older, I really want to travel. Now, as a student, I can’t travel much, so I figured if they’re coming here, it’s a chance for me to learn.”

The mere fact that the Kyoto students are here in person has provided some valuable — and unexpected — learning opportunities. Ohno was teaching some common Japanese words and phrases to Verrett, including kawaii (cute), ogenki desu ka (how are you?) and ai shiteimasu (I love you.) In another class, Kyoto’s Mako Ishiyama was fielding questions from a gaggle of students who were fascinated by her gleaming, naturally golden hair.

Off campus, the Japanese students are being immersed in American life through homestays and side trips, including Disneyland and Santa Monica Beach. Jeannie and Ron Toshima of Pasadena are hosting a Kyoto student for the second time, and said the experience of spending time with other teenagers has been one of the best aspects of the trip for their guest, 17-year-old Miho Tsujimoto.

After the in-class sessions end this week for the Kyoto group, a farewell party is scheduled for Thursday in Pasadena, with their return to Japan set for Monday.

Mizoue said this visit is a keystone to the Wisteria program’s ideals.

“We want to help raise kids who communicate with others in the world,” she said. “We are dedicated to international hope.”

For her part, Verrett intends to make every effort to show Ohno as much as possible during their short time together, in hopes that they will both come away a little wiser.

“I want to show her around because she’s never seen some of the things we have here, just as I might be surprised by some of the things at her school.”

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  1. Thanks Mikey for this wonderful overview of the visit from the Kyoto Girls School. My husband and I hosted 2 students for the 2nd year and really appreciated seeing the US through the girls eyes. It was a richly rewarding experience for us as much as it was for the girls. We feel that we now have a relationship with these new Japanese daughters that will last for a lifetime and hope that we will one day see them again.

    The exchange program was facilitated by a very hard working contact in the US and he is much to be credited for being the horse that drove the cart making this program a reality along with the administrators from PUSD. Thank you to Mr Yagi and the PUSD admin team.

  2. It’s great that Pasadena welcomes students from Japan and from around the world. Programs like this strengthen our ties with the world through people-to-people relationships. Thank you Mikey and Rafu Shimpo for covering these activities.