The 25 Okinawan student participants in the 25th Hawai‘i-Okinawa Sister-State Student Exchange marked the milestone anniversary with a visit to the office of Gov. David Ige on March 12. During their two-week visit, the 10th and 11th graders from various high schools in Okinawa lived with host families on O‘ahu. They attended classes with the high school children of their host families and also joined them on family outings.
Leading the delegation this year was Masahiro Unten, councilor and third in command of the Okinawa Prefecture Department of Education. Tamotsu Miyagi, who coordinates the program for the Okinawa DOE, accompanied the students to Hawai‘i, along with two English teachers from Okinawa, Tadato Miyagawa and Chiaki Inamine.
Gov. Ige said he was especially pleased to welcome the group to the State Capitol as Hawai‘i’s — and America’s — first governor of Okinawan ancestry. He praised the students for having been selected for the exchange program. Ige said their visit was extra special because two state-related anniversaries are being observed this year: the 25th anniversary of the student exchange program between Hawai‘i and Okinawa, and the 30th anniversary of Hawai‘i’s sister-state ties with Okinawa. Ige told the students that Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community has made a conscious effort to perpetuate their culture.
Joining the group in the governor’s office were former Hawai‘i DOE superintendent Charles Toguchi, who served in the state Senate prior to being appointed superintendent, and former state Rep. Dennis Arakaki, who introduced the legislation creating the student exchange program. Among the bill’s co-sponsors in 1989 was then-state Rep. David Ige. The student exchange program was implemented during Toguchi’s tenure as superintendent.
The program is coordinated by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, which was represented by 2015 president Mark Higa and executive director Jane Serikaku. For the first 20 years, the program was funded by the Hawai‘i’s sister-state program. When funding was cut five years ago, the HUOA decided that the exchange, which places the Okinawa students with families of all ethnicities, was too valuable a learning experience for both the Hawai‘i and Okinawan students and their families to terminate, so they decided to fund it on its own and with donations.
Former Sen. Toguchi, who is also a member of the HUOA’s Ginoza Club, raised $10,000 among his family, friends and business associates to help fund this year’s 25th anniversary program.
The students said their favorite Hawai‘i foods are poke and loco moco, and all nodded “yes” when asked whether they would like to visit Hawai‘i again.
The group was also recognized in both chambers of the Legislature. Additionally, they visited with Mayor Kirk Caldwell and were recognized by the Honolulu City Council.
Serikaku said the selection process was especially competitive this year, with 64 Okinawan students vying for the 25 slots available. The applicants were required to write an essay on what they hoped to learn from the experience that they could bring home to Okinawa.
Seventeen O‘ahu host families with high school-age children in 11 public and private schools opened their homes to the students this year. The participating were: ‘Aiea; Castle; Kalani; Mililani; Pearl City; Roosevelt; Hakipu‘u Learning Center, a public charter school; Damien Memorial; Hanalani; Hawaii Baptist Academy and Punahou.
In June, the Hawai‘i high school students will travel to Okinawa, where they will homestay with Okinawan families. Students who host the Okinawa students are given first priority for the Okinawa side of the exchange.
Serikaku said donations for the exchange program are welcome. Checks should be made payable to HUOA with “Student Exchange” on the notation line and mailed to HUOA, 94-587 Uke‘e St., Waipahu, HI 96797.