Being 17 years old and going to a foreign country for the first time can be
intimidating enough. But it can be downright scary to be away from family
and friends when two major catastrophes hit your home land.
That’s what has happened to Aiko Kawano, a junior foreign exchange student
at Chesterton High School.
Kawano lives in southern Japan in Miyazaki near the Shinmoedake volcano. In
late January, the volcano erupted for the first time in 52 years, spewing
ash and toppling trees over a wide area. “I couldn’t believe it,” Kawano
said about hearing the news. She said the eruption came as a complete
surprise. Her family lost power but only for a day. Her mom, who works at an
airport, couldn’t work for several days because of ash that covered
Then this week came the horrific news of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that
struck northern Japan, followed by another eruption at Shinmoedake.
“I was very scared,” Kawano said.
Because her home is far south of the area struck by the earthquake and the
nuclear plant explosions, Kawano said her family hasn’t been impacted and
hasn’t lost power -- unlike the Tokyo area to the north, where power is
being rationed, and the areas in the Sendai region that are devastated.
She’s able to communicate with her family freely through Facebook. “They’re
fine,” she said.
Her classmates at CHS have been asking her about the earthquake throughout
this week. “Most of my friends are thinking about my family. I tell them
that they are fine,” she said.
Still, the disaster is on her mind. She’s been watching the news every day.
“I want to get more information,” she said.
Japanese teacher Akiko Tsugawa has a somewhat different take. Tsugawa moved
here in 2001, but most of her family still lives in Toyama, northwest of
Tokyo near the coast of the Sea of Japan. Her family is also fine, but they
heard the shakes from the quake.
To Tsugawa, the ongoing news is somewhat overwhelming, especially since
there is little she can do to help. “I don’t what to see anymore. If I could
be of help, I would,” she said.
This summer, Tsugawa will visit her hometown, as will Japanese teacher John
Sparks and about 14 of the CHS Japanese students. Tsugawa said she may go to
the devastated region to see if she can provide any aid, even if that
consists of only hauling bottled water.
In the meantime, Tsugawa is organizing a collection drive for Japanese
relief efforts, with the money raised going to a relief agency, likely the
American Red Cross. Canisters left over from the cafeteria and boxes brought
in by staff members will serve as the collection boxes, with the drive set
to take place on Thursday and Friday. Tsugawa said a few businesses have
also agreed to have a collection box in their offices. “I’m very grateful
that they’re being so supportive,” she said.
At CHS, Kawano serves as a cultural ambassador, sharing her experiences and
culture with the CHS students studying Japanese and helping them with the
language. She has studied English for about 3 1/2 years. Her second foreign
language that she’s learning is Chinese. At her home school, learning a
foreign language is a standard part of the curriculum beginning in seventh
Having lived and studied here all school year, Kawano has gotten a good
taste of American life. What are some of the biggest lifestyle differences?
Kawano said in Japan, public transportation is very convenient, with the
ability to go just about anywhere by hopping on a train. She said she has
been to Chicago on the South Shore, but observed that the use of cars is
much more prevalent here.
Another difference deals with schools. In Japan, the students listen to
teachers in a lecture format. Here, the atmosphere is “more fun.”
But perhaps the biggest difference deals with diet. Kawano hesitated at
first, but said that she can’t eat all the food that’s served here because
the portions are too large. “It’s just my opinion, but I think Americans eat
too much,” she said.
Kawano said she’s found the people here to be friendly and that she’s glad
she signed up to be a foreign exchange student. But she’s also looking
forward to June, when she will return home.
Status of Other Students, Staff
Sparks shared an update of former CHS students and staff who are now in
Kanako Goto, a former assistant Japanese teacher and local karate club
member is in Tokyo and is fine.
Former exchange student Shiho Fukuda lives in northern Japan but she and her
family are fine. Her father is in the Japanese army known as the Japan Self
Defense Force and is working on rescue efforts.
Former exchange students Maya Tsuaki from Hiroshima and Taka Ikemoto from
southern Japan live far away from the earthquake area and are fine.
Former exchange student Kiriko Tanaka is in Tokyo and is ok.
CHS grads Erica Reynolds and Grant Schechner teach in Japan in the Japanese
Ministry of Education’s Japan Exchange & Teaching Program and are fine.