Japanese students’ annual visit to Kennedy High forms important bonds

Japanese students' annual visit to Kennedy High forms important bonds
Students from Shimada, Japan, participate in an art activity during their visit to Kennedy High this week as part of a long-running sister city relationship with Richmond.

Soccer isn’t just an international sport – it’s an international language.

That was apparent at Kennedy High on Tuesday, when eight students from Shimada, Japan, toured the school as part of a sister city relationship with Richmond established in 1961.

The Japanese students visited the school’s Library, dance club, special education class and impressive Fab Lab, among other campus spots. Twice, they connected with Kennedy High students in soccer-related activities: First, on the football field. And later, a foosball table.

Amid a busy schedule Tuesday, soccer was indeed a highlight.

“When we went out to the field, they were having so much fun, we had to let it go on longer,” said Evan Sirchuk, a program alum and coordinator.

And later, in special education teacher Sal Morabito’s classroom, a foosball table drew an organic connection. After a few impromptu games between the Japanese and American students, students from both sides hugged it out – yet another bridge in the cultural barrier.

Eri Yamada (third from left) poses with Richmond friends, including teacher Steve Pinto (with camera) and Shimada exchange alum Evan Sirchuk (on far right) during their Kennedy High visit on Tuesday, March 27, 2019.

Soon after, it was a dance off. In the high school’s dance studio, the Kennedy High students exhibited their synchronized dance, and the Japanese students did theirs as well.

Even better than that cultural experience? The one that happens at home.

For about 10 years, at the end of March, Shimada, a city of about the same population as Richmond that faces similar challenges in retaining its young people, sends students to live with Richmond families for about a week, according to Kennedy High teacher Steve Pinto. Kennedy High students earn learning credit by planning, chaperoning and evaluating the experience, said Pinto. The Japanese delegation tours the Bay Area with their host families. This year, they visited Richmond’s Rubicon Bakery, San Francisco and other sites.

In late June, about four American students and a teacher are sent to Shimada for a month.

Pinto himself went to Shimada in 1985. It had a profound impact on him, inspiring his decade of teaching in Tokyo.

“When you go to Shimada, they make you a family member for life,” he said. “And vice versa, we try to do the same. It’s a way of creating family.”

The Shimada students receive instruction from the Kennedy High dance teacher during their school visit on Tuesday, March 27, 2019.

That remains true today. Among the visitors to Kennedy High this week was Eri Yamada. She visited Richmond as a student in 2009. That inspired her to pursue English studies at the University of Nebraska. This past week, she helped chaperone the visit to Kennedy High, her fourth visit to the area. She said she was particuilarly excited to reconnect with her host family. She was also presented with the Kennedy High 2009 yearbook, in which she appears in a photo.

“At first when you visit the other city, there’s a little bit of culture shock,” said Sirchuk. “But pretty soon you realize that people on both sides are just regular people just trying to get through the regular life struggles.”

Richmond has three Sister City relationships, which exist to exchange information, arts, culture, resources and assistance between the two cities.

Other city city relationships include Zhoushan, China, established in 1993; and Regla, Cuba established in 1999.

The Shimada students receive instruction from the Kennedy High dance teacher during their school visit on Tuesday, March 27, 2019.