Exchanging Culture: Japanese teens get a taste of life as Modesto students

Japanese teenagers Ayano Imamura and Ryuki Tomita were surprised to learn that U.S. high schools let students choose some of their classes.

They also liked how some students are eager to answer teachers' questions, unlike in their homeland.

Ayano and Ryuki were among 18 students from Kyoto, Japan, who have been visiting Modesto for three weeks as part of a foreign exchange program.

Each traveler was paired with a "buddy" to shadow in classes during the school day. In the afternoon, the visitors attended a multimedia class at Johansen High School, where U.S. and Japanese students worked on editing video and photo slide shows into a DVD of their trip.

The favor will be returned in early April, when 24 students from Modesto high schools will visit their Japanese friends for a week.

The setup is a little different from most foreign exchange programs. Before the groups of students travel to visit each other, they meet online through Second Life, a virtual world where users socialize, similar to the life-simulation game Sims.

"Students become comfortable with each other, so they're able to carry on conversations and friendships when they get here," said Rob Riter, an English teacher at Kyoto Gakuen High School.

Modesto and Kyoto have had an exchange program for more than a decade and have been using Second Life to enhance interactions for almost four years.

Throughout the year, students chat with each other and work on projects via Second Life. They even hold video conferences. For example, at Christmas, each side opens gifts sent from the other.

Johansen High School graduate Rachel Velasquez, who went to Kyoto in 2009, said Second Life was helpful for students to get to know each other. The experience overall was about "doing different things and learning new things," she said.

All students stay with host families during their trips, so the largest expense is the plane ticket, which parents must cover. Tickets for Japan range from $740 to $2,400.

Johansen technology teacher Brad Cornwell chaperoned last year's excursion and said the U.S. students noticed how safe the country was and that teaching styles were different. They had to adjust to such customs as taking shoes off when entering houses and schools. The students were wowed by how clean and graffiti-free Japan is, he said.

"They kept talking about the level of cleanliness and respect," Cornwell said. "I think they can bring something like that home with them. They can see what respect can do when the whole country is the same way."

Ayano edited a photo slide show of her stay Wednesday, including adventures to Yosemite, San Francisco and Monterey. She said she enjoyed using Johansen's cutting-edge computers and software programs, which are hard to come by in Kyoto.

"She was surprised to see how laid-back students are, that they don't wear uniforms," said Riter, translating for the 17-year-old. "She noticed that in America, since students are given the chance to decide for themselves (what classes to take, etc.), they're laid-back and can enjoy more what they're doing."

Japanese students tend to have longer school days and school years, and their high school classes are prescribed for them, Riter said. Most start learning English in elementary school.

Ryuki said U.S. high schools tend to be larger and have more students than those in Kyoto.

"It feels like a college campus," Riter translated.

Modesto coordinator Stan Trevena said the program's goals are to give Japanese students a way to practice their English and to allow both groups of students to learn about each others' countries and customs.

"That communication and cultural exchange is important since we're a global society," said Trevena, Modesto City Schools' director of information and technology services. "You get the best pieces of both and can bring back each to your home, family and friends."

It appears to be working.

Though the teens are from different countries, they have similar personalities, said Malachi Batt, a Johansen High senior who's been a buddy for one of the visiting students.

"My buddy and I listen to the same music," he said, listing Michael Jackson, Nas and Public Enemy as hip-hop artists they both like. "Their morals are strict, but their culture is the same as ours in a way."

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Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339.