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The strong relationship between Townsend Harris and its Japanese sister school Shimoda High School was especially evident within the THHS community over the past month. On April 16, THHS hosted the Consul General of Japan in New York in honor of the school’s connection with Shimoda High School, and students from Shimoda visited last March.
Ambassador Reiichiro Takahashi, the Consul General of Japan in New York and Deputy Director-General of the International Peace Cooperation, sought to pay homage to Townsend Harris, the first American ambassador to Japan. Assemblywoman Nily Rozic initiated the visit and coordinated the agenda with Principal Anthony Barbetta.
Japanese and Music teacher Mariko Sato-Berger and some of her students held performances for the ambassador in the school library. Mr. Barbetta, Ms. Rozic, and the president of Queens College, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, attended the event. The performances included scenes from a skit on the history of THHS’ namesake, an Indian musical performance, a solo iaido performance (a form of Japanese swordsmanship), and classical violin and piano pieces. Afterwards, Dr. Sato opened up the floor to the audience for a Q&A session with Mr. Takahashi.
During this time, Mr. Takahashi spoke about the polio outbreak in Afghanistan and his experience as a former ambassador to Afghanistan. He also discussed the tense relationship between China and Japan and what attracted him to THHS.
“I have a very high respect for Harris. [The] name of the school attracted me the most,” he said.
Mr. Takahashi also cited imagination as the most important trait a diplomat should have, as it is crucial to understanding different people.
“I was impressed with Ambassador Takahashi’s willingness to understand differences among people and his honesty and compassion towards others,” said Dr. Sato.
The ambassador’s visit proved to be an educational experience for the audience. “I learned Townsend Harris is still alive and well in Japan, that the government still thinks very highly of Townsend Harris and he holds a place in their heart and I learned a lot about the ambassador himself,” said Mr. Barbetta. “I was very surprised that he actually served in Afghanistan, which is a very dangerous country.”
“In my 12 years with THHS, we have not had any ambassador or consuls visiting us,” recalled Dr. Sato. “But during [Founding Principal Malcolm Largmann’s] time, THHS did have a visit by the Japanese Ambassador.”
Senior Cienah Gray-Cowans, who is currently taking AP Japanese, was nervous about her iaido performance but overall enjoyed the experience. “The ambassador is really friendly and has a sense of humor,” she remarked.
Last March, students from Shimoda High School also visited THHS, as they do annually. Unlike the Okinawa students who visited in the Fall semester, the Shimoda students were not as exposed to the American lifestyle.
Okinawa is located on the southernmost islands of Japan where there is a large U.S. military base that serves as a bridge between American and Japanese culture. However, the small fishing town of Shimoda is secluded from such exposure. Thus, the sister school relationship between Shimoda and THHS allows for a unique exchange.
“This year was very special for THHS kids and Shimoda kids because we joined in the Spring Fair at the United Nations International School,” said Dr. Sato. “We were able to join at the same event. That was very special and worked out since Shimoda happened to be having Spring Break.”
Other activities included classroom visits and a gathering in the library.
“[In] previous years, there [were] only English teachers [that chaperone the Shimoda HS students],” said Dr. Sato. “This year was interesting, we had one English teacher and one math teacher. [The math teacher] was very interested in observing the classes here and had some very interesting things to say.”
Senior and AP Japanese student Mary Ji said that the most notable aspect of the visit was when the students gathered in a circle and had a joint discussion in the library. THHS students learned much about Japanese culture, and were often surprised by the contrast with American culture.
“We talked about bullying, college entrance, the math classes in Japanese high schools in comparison to American high schools, and at the end we had free time to take pictures with the Shimoda students and some of our students even danced a few dances from FON,” said Mary.
“I was quite amazed that we were able to share so many cultural and in-depth stories in such a short time.”
“If the Shimoda High School students never came, I would’ve never known that they never use calculator in math classes (not even Calculus), and I would have never been able to make so many Japanese friends in one day,” said Mary.
Students and teachers from Shimoda also noticed the differences. Shimoda English teacher Mika Kon stated that she was more familiar with a quieter classroom environment.
Ms. Kon remarked, “The students [here] are so active and aggressive. In Japan, students are shy so they don’t want to speak out loud. They don’t speak out their opinion. I want them to learn [from THHS students].”
Dr. Sato agreed that the exchange of culture between any two parties is beneficial. She said that it is even more so “for the kids who are learning Japanese to meet people from Japan. It is just an indescribable experience to be able to really feel their culture face to face.”
For senior Joice Im, the visit reinforced the history between the two schools.
She said, “Having a face-to-face interaction between the Harrisites and the Shimoda students helps us continue the relationship that was once created.”