by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
OVERLAND PARK — Six Japanese girls who visited St. Thomas Aquinas High School here just weeks after earthquakes devastated their country have returned home with much more than memories of a different culture.
They took back donations to help with their country’s recovery — and with the knowledge that people here are praying for them.
“At school, we pray at the beginning of every class,” said Aquinas freshman Camille Nutti, whose family welcomed 17-year-old Ayaka Matsumoto into their home.
“We pray at school and in our family, too,” added her sister Claire, who is a junior. And Japan’s recovery was always included in those prayers.
So when their Japanese guest arrived and asked what they were doing, Camille explained.
In fact, the sisters, from Church of the Ascension Parish in Overland Park, copied out some common Catholic prayers in English so Ayaka could read along and understand them.
Ayaka and her companions were visiting as part of a cultural exchange program between St. Thomas Aquinas and its sister school, Yonaga High School in Yonaga, Japan.
Ayaka’s unfamiliarity with prayer was not surprising to the Aquinas organizer of the exchange.
“They may not have had very much exposure to other religions,” said Spanish teacher Kaye Thompson, who heads the exchange program for the Overland Park high school.
Most Japanese practice a combination ShintoBuddhist religion, she said.
“They have times like New Year’s Day, when they go to the shrines and temples, but it’s not regular like ours,” she said. “So it’s really interesting for them.”
Although they were better at understanding English than speaking it, Ayaka and her fellow exchange students adjusted quickly to their new surroundings, said Thompson.
They attended school with their hosts, visited local sights, and were immersed in American culture.
One unique experience for the visitors was a slumber party — typically American, except for the menu.
“We got sushi from a Japanese steak house,” said Camille.
The sushi was in honor of the guests’ hometown, which is world renowned for its sushi. The Japanese exchange students gave a thumbs-up to the Kansas version.
“They said it tasted exactly the same,” said Camille.
But “they tend to be very polite,” added her mother, Eve Nutti.
Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas students found the Japanese girls to be very polite, reserved and shy. American school was an adjustment for them.
Ayaka was surprised at the outgoing nature of the students here.
“The students here have more fun,” she said. “But all the students are eager to learn.”
Ayaka was also surprised that students could drive; the driving age in Japan is 18. She also thought American society more permissive in the way students can dress.
“Japanese school is different,” she said. “The students here get to wear earrings and makeup and accessories.”
So attending St. Thomas Aquinas’ prom was a big adventure for the girls.
“They do not have any kind of dances at their school,” explained Camille.
“Generally, the students in Japan are not dating at this age,” explained Thompson. “They are more sheltered in that respect.”
The fact that the Japanese students couldn’t take dates slowed them down not at all. The girls went as a group with their hosts.
Though the exchange students enjoyed their time in the states, Thompson and their host families knew thoughts of Japan were never far away.
Yonaga was structurally unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami. But the girls were keenly aware of the catastrophe’s devastation.
“In spite of the fact that I did not feel the damage,” said Ayaka, “I collected relief supplies and donated them. It helped me to help others.”
“I’ve not well grasped the scale of the damage,” she continued. “The description of radiation and nuclear hazard, I just do not know.”
To help the girls feel closer to home and to demonstrate their support, Aquinas students decided to have a Japan Day focused on raising money for disaster victims.
For $3, students were allowed to dress down, and the lunch menu featured a Japanese stir-fry. The exchange students, dressed in traditional kimonos, were available to write names and phrases in Japanese characters.
The morning and closing school prayers were said in English and then repeated in Japanese by one of the exchange students.
This exchange of cultures between St. Thomas Aquinas and Yonaga high schools has been a fixture at the school since 1993.
The experience always highlights differences. But, in the end, the greatest lesson students learn is how much they are alike.
“I think once we get past how shy they are, Japanese people are just the same as we are,” said Claire.
“I just learned that these people are basically like us,” agreed her sister. “Their culture is different, but inside we’re all people, so we have to treat everyone with respect.”
Their mother was thankful the family and school had an opportunity to pray with exchange students at a time when their country so desperately needs prayer.
“I think the larger picture is it’s an opportunity to show our Catholic faith to other cultures that may have no exposure [to it] at all,” she said.
“I feel like [Ayaka] saw a part of our faith [through the exchange],” added Claire, “and maybe she’ll be interested in visiting a Catholic church back home in Japan.”
Ayaka’s English might have been limited, but she had no problem expressing her opinion of the exchange program.
“I think the STA Exchange short-term study is excellent!” she said.