The rising sun of the Japanese flag hung on the flagpole beneath the maple leaf at Henry G. Izatt Middle School in September as the Whyte Ridge school hosted exchange students from Setagaya, Japan. A city-ward within Tokyo, Setagaya is a sister city to Winnipeg.
The student exchange between the twinned cities began in 1971 at General Byng School. In 2011, Darren Oughton, vice-principal of Henry Izatt School in Whyte Ridge, was invited by Judy Pirnie, principal of General Byng, to allow Izatt to be joint-participants in the exchange. That year saw the first group of Japanese students arrive at Henry Izatt and, the following spring, the reciprocal visit of Winnipeg students to Japan. The biannual program is being repeated this school year.
The focus of the exchange is goodwill, communication and culture-sharing.
A rigorous selection process for the interested students from Grade 8 and 9 of the two schools — 8 girls and 8 boys in total — starts the year before. Applicants are interviewed on their written and verbal skills as well as their ability to adapt to experiences outside of their comfort zone. Evening Japanese classes lessen the language challenge faced by the chosen students and their accompanying teachers and administrators.
The Setagaya students arrive here with a leg-up, having studied English in their schools.
Differences in time zone, food, school dress code and pedagogy are quickly overcome as our cultural diversity is showcased through field trips, in-school activities and outings with host families.
A visit to a Hutterite colony and the talents of hoop-dancers from the Aboriginal School of Dance opened the eyes of both the Winnipeg students and their Japanese visitors. Canoeing and corn mazes in the warm September sunshine offered a sense of our wide open natural spaces.
Oughton wishes it were possible for more students to participate in the exchange program. The outcomes of cultural respect, friendship and the skill sets gained in overcoming differences are priceless.
In late September, the visiting students boarded the plane for the flight home but their sadness was tempered with the joy of knowing that friendships forged over the short stay will be rekindled in March as 16 students from Henry G. Izatt and General Byng schools will complete the circle of goodwill. In the meantime, there is Facebook.