Now in its 20th year, an exchange between Japanese and Oregon high school students is celebrating two decades of friendship based on music. The program brings together band members from both countries, alternating annually between Japan and Oregon, to perform concerts, develop relationships, and learn about one another’s culture.
The program began in 1996 after a Rotary exchange student studying in Matsudo, in Chiba Prefecture, returned and proposed to his band teacher that they invite the school for a joint conference. Other than the year of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the exchange has been running ever since. This year’s gathering was hosted in Bend, Oregon and included students from Molalla High School, Summit, and Mt. View high schools, in addition to the students from Japan. More than 1,000 students have participated in the program since it began.
Education ties between Japan and Oregon have a long history. The first native English teacher to teach in Japan was from Oregon, arriving in 1848. Today, the state has the most Japanese immersion programs in schools and ranks second after Hawai‘i in per capita Japanese-language study. For example, the Eugene School District has a Japanese immersion program through its Yujin Gakuen Japanese Immersion School, which was the first public Japanese immersion program in the country when it opened in 1988. Student exchanges are also common between the two. Earlier in 2015, high school wrestlers from Japan faced off against some of Oregon’s top talent as part of a cultural exchange program that began in 1960.
Many of Oregon’s colleges and universities also have Japan studies programs that further promote the language and culture. The state has 24 sister relationships with communities across Japan and a state-level relationship with Toyama Prefecture. Oregon also has significant economic ties with Japan as the state exports more than $1.8 billion of goods and services to Japan annually, which represents 14% of its total state exports to Asia. More than 11,000 jobs are supported by exports to Japan and Japanese students studying in the state contribute $22 million to the economy.
Nate Schlabach is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a graduate student at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.