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August 14, 2017

Rutherford County Schools

Keiko Naoi has an important message for students in Japan.

After a two-week trip to Rutherford County and other points of interest in Tennessee, Naoi intends to instill to the students of Zama, Japan, that it’s of central importance to their futures to dream young.

“I saw that they have the dream for the future,” said Naoi, following her tour of Stewarts Creek High School on Friday morning. “They learn many things so they can focus on what they want to do at this school, so I want to say to the Japanese students, ‘If you have something (you want to do) for the future, please, select what you learn at the high school.’

“Japanese students should have a dream.”

Naoi, an elementary school principal in Zama, was one of eight chaperones traveling with a group of 19 exchange students, who toured Stewarts Creek High School on the final day of their two-week trip to Tennessee.

“That’s something I have a passion about,” said Stewarts Creek Principal Dr. Clark Harrell after hearing Naoi’s hope that Japanese students one day have an opportunity to dream like those who attend school here in Rutherford County, “and just hearing her say that is something I can identify with. We need to find the passion that our students have to be able to help them fulfill their dreams.”

Naoi and the others extensively toured the Career and Technical Education pathways offered at the high school.

They had a hands-on experience with everything from audio engineering to video production, criminal justice to computer science, agriculture to animal science and cosmetology to auto repair.

“The culture in Japan and the system is more of a sort and select,” said Rutherford County Schools Director Don Odom, “where the system in the United States is exposure for students and then they begin to select what their skills and interests are.”

Odom added, “It’s why the United States is one of the leaders in the world in creativity.”

The “sister city” exchange program with Zama and Smyrna is in its 24th year.

The program is overseen by a seven-person committee made up of volunteers.

The Japanese delegation arrived stateside on July 31 and left for home on Aug. 12. While in Tennessee, they visited the governor’s mansion and then met Gov. Bill Haslam at the state capitol.

They also toured the Nissan plant in Smyrna as well as Gibson’s custom guitar factory, which is not ordinarily open to the public.

There were 19 Japanese students on the trip — 12 of whom spent two days at Stewarts Creek High School, two went to Smyrna High, three went to Thurman Francis, one was at Stewarts Creek Middle and another went to Central Magnet.

Shuri Ohyama, Chihiro Kono, Eito Yshii, Youmi Higashi, Rurina Nagai, Mayu Koyanagi, Miyuu Ouchi, Io Sawada, Kenta Ishizaka, Seigo Akaeda, Kaoru Yamamoto, Yuichiro Katahira, Chihiro Ito, Rintaro Okuma, Tsuyoshi Shikida, Haruki Iwabuchi, Yuna Makino, Mifuyu Nakamura and Neo Iwama stayed with host families and students from the schools they visited.

Alexa Campos, a junior from Stewarts Creek who will be traveling to Zama next year, said Sawada was surprised by how big and colorful the Campos family’s house is compared to Japan.

Nearly everyone who has been involved in the sister city program are members of a Facebook group where they share stories and photos.

“It’s lifelong,” said Melody Welshofer, a committee member.

Welshofer has been to Japan and has gotten to know Isao Kimura and his family over the years. Welshofer has shared photos of her family and in turn Kimura shared photos of his grandchildren.

“They’re like my other family,” she added.

American students wishing to participate in the program apply through the Town of Smyrna website and those who are chosen are asked to make a three-year commitment at the time of their interview with the sister city committee.

Each student and their family will host a visiting student from Japan for two weeks one year and then travel to Japan the next, while taking part in fundraising the third year.

The trip to Japan costs between $800 to $1,000 after splitting the cost three ways between the Town of Smyrna, fundraising efforts the remaining student fee.

“Our young adults are just so intellectual and even culturally minded,” Harrell said. “They embrace this.”

Harrell added, “We’ve always felt like, at Stewarts Creek High School, we want to make a difference in education so this is one way we can be true to our vision where there are things they see that they can take back. The other side is the dialog and (Naoi’s) invitation to come and see their educational system. Healthy dialog is a good thing and it’s a two-way street of opportunity.”

“It is a very good system in high school,” said Naoi, who asked Odom and Harrell several pointed questions about dual enrollment and dual credit. “The Japanese high school students don’t decide what to do for the future, but (at Stewarts Creek) they do. I like that.”