Students earn opportunity to travel to Japan

PUKALANI – A group of King Kekaulike High School Japanese language students and their teacher will fly to Japan early next year on all-expense paid trips to experience the country’s culture and to learn about its history.

Teacher Jan Matsushita and students Joleen Paul, Tiara Nishijo, Shelby Akuna and Alyson Hernandez-Ignacio beat out entries from 10 other public schools statewide, based on an essay about how they would use their experiences, for the opportunity sponsored by JTB Hawaii’s Goodwill Foundation.

They will be in Japan from Feb. 13 to 18 homestay in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, and attend the Yukishika Snow Festival.

“I’m excited,” Nishijo said. “We did some research about some things we want to see like the Tokyo Tower . . . and bring back information to share with our peers.”

The nonprofit foundation has been sending Hawaii educators to Japan for the past 20 years to acquaint them with the country’s educational system. Last year, the nonprofit group shifted its focus and sent a group of Iolani School students from Oahu to experience the country and the annual snow festival with more than 100 handmade snowmen.

“With Iolani being private, this year we felt we wanted to give some public schools an opportunity,” foundation Board Member Val Iwashita said.

To earn the trips, the teacher and their students had to write an essay explaining what they were going to do in the community with their experiences in Japan.

“They (King Kekaulike) primarily described how the trip would benefit them, and the points they made about internment camps, peace and their values fit nicely with what we wanted,” said Iwashita.

On Monday, Iwashita and foundation Administrator David Asanuma met with the students in Matsushita’s classroom and congratulated them on their selection. The students have completed two years of Japanese language but have never visited Japan. In fact, three of them have not left the country.

“It’s a little nerve-racking,” Akuna said of traveling internationally.

Matsushita didn’t really understand Principal Susan Schofield when she told her two weeks ago, “you got it.”

“I didn’t know what she was talking about,” Matsushita said. “And then she said, ‘The trip. You got the trip.’ I said, ‘What?’ ”

Matsushita, who teaches five classes with about 100 students, selected the four girls before submitting the application in October. At first, Matsushita thought about trying to keep the trip a secret for a bit, “but then I saw Tia’s face and I just couldn’t lie to them.”

“I think they all screamed,” Matsushita said when she gave them the news.

Akuna and Hernandez-Ignacio are already counting the days to their trip to Japan. Nishijo was worried about the distance between them during their homestays. Paul was not too thrilled about the cold weather.

“It’s a short trip, but we’re bringing a lot of clothes because it’s going to snow,” Paul said.

Following the trip, Matsushita said the students will share their experiences with her other classes and work with the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in Wailuku and its research into internment camps on Maui. First- and second-generation Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast mostly, but also some in Hawaii, were rounded up and put in remote camps with names such as Manzanar, Gila River and Tule Lake during World War II.

Recently, facilities and camps where Japanese and Japanese-Americans were detained in Hawaii during the war have been uncovered, the largest being Honouliuli internment camp on Oahu.

The students plan to use the experience from their travels “to go on the other side and to see the sites that were bombed in Japan during World War II and hopefully share that experience” while researching internment camps on Maui.

Iwashita was pleased to see the students excited about their journey next year and said it reminded him of his own trip 20 years ago as principal of Mid-Pacific Institute on Oahu.

“It was very revealing to me because (Japan’s educational) system is so different than ours,” he said. “I learned a lot, but I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. This trip (for the students) could impact their lives and their interests.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at