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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — American students here who will be in grades 5 through 9 this fall have the chance to experience day-to-day life with a Japanese family and also host a Japanese child in their home for several days this summer.

The deadline to sign up for the 17th annual Homestay Program, sponsored by the Family Support Center and Misawa Board of Education, is June 10.

Organizers said the program is more than a chance to sleep on futons and tatami mats and eat Japanese home-cooked food.

“It has the potential to build a lifelong correspondence and cultural exchange,” said Maj. Victor Baumgarten, Family Support Center director.

For the homestay, Americans are paired with a Japanese child of similar age, though families can request whether to host a boy or girl. From July 29-31, the American students will stay in the home of the participating Japanese family, and return the favor from Aug. 5-7, with all families coming together for a farewell picnic on the last day at Davy Jones Locker.

Misawa City Mayor Shigeyoshi Suzuki first envisioned the program in 1988, according to the Family Support Center staff, as a way to encourage communication, cultural exchange and friendship between American and Japanese students living in Misawa. The first exchange was in 1989.

“It’s really about American and Japanese students learning about each other’s cultures and building better connections between the Misawa and American communities,” said Anna Flowers, Family Support Center community readiness technician.

“And breaking down those barriers that tend to start at the gate,” added Danielle Mitchell, also a Family Support Center community readiness technician.

Madeleine Bee, a sixth-grader at Sollars Elementary School, now counts Saika Iwamoto among her friends, a bond forged last year when the then-10-year-olds were paired in the homestay program.

Saika spent two days with Madeleine’s family, making pizza and chocolate chip cookies, playing miniature golf, going bowling and watching Madeleine in a Missoula Children’s Theater production at the Mokuteki Community Center.

“She thought our oven was just humongous,” Madeleine said.

After ending up in the same ballet class off base, the two have continued their friendship. “We still keep in touch. We have sleepovers,” Madeleine said.

The language difference wasn’t an issue, Madeleine added, since Saika knew a lot of English and even taught Madeleine a few Japanese words.

Though Madeleine didn’t stay at Saika’s house as part of the homestay due to family obligations, she did spend the night at another Japanese family’s home in Hirosaki for an exchange sponsored by the Girl Scouts at Misawa.

Flowers said homestay participants receive an orientation prior to the program’s start, touching on cultural dos and don’ts, and suggestions of different activities they can do while hosting a Japanese child.

“We talk about being courteous, particularly when it comes to food, and being respectful,” she said. American and Japanese families who sign up are given background checks, Baumgarten said. Last year 19 American and 19 Japanese students participated; organizers hope to increase that number this year to 40 from both countries.

Families can sign up at the Family Support Center in the Torii Building on base. Call the center at DSN 226-4735 for more information.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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