Writer’s Yonsei Children Instrumental in Building New Bridges of Friendship and Family
Patsy Y. Iwasaki
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Please call me Reiko-mama,” replied Reiko Araragi in response to my daughter Kellie’s question: “What should I call you?” So, throughout her two-night, three-day stay in Hiroshima, Kellie called her homestay mother “Reiko-mama.” And a family bond was born.
That was back in 2011 when Kellie was 16 years old and a youth delegate from the East Hawaii Hiroshima Kenjinkai on the 10-day-long International Youth Exchange sponsored by the Hiroshima Prefectural Government.
Every year for at least the last decade (and likely more), the program has invited students ages 15 to 18 from Hiroshima kenjinkai (prefectural clubs) in Hawai‘i, the U.S. mainland, Mexico and South America to enrich their understanding of their ancestral roots through a variety of educational experiences and a homestay. The Hiroshima Prefectural Government and program coordinators invest in the youth, hoping the exchange will encourage and foster vibrant relations between the overseas kenjinkai and Hiroshima into the next generation and beyond.
According to the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum, approximately 776,304 Japanese nationals immigrated to North, Central and South America before the 1924 U.S. Immigration Act, which halted immigration from Japan. The majority of these emigrants — 109,893 — were from Hiroshima Prefecture. Today, there are over 3 million Nikkei (persons of Japanese ancestry living outside of Japan) worldwide. The majority of them — 1.6 million — settled in Brazil, with 1,304,286 living in the United States.
Of the 220,000 Japanese emigrants who settled in Hawai‘i, the largest number — about 25 percent — came from Hiroshima Prefecture, and today, the connections continue. Among the most notable are the sister-city relationship between Honolulu and Hiroshima City, which was established in 1959, the year Hawai‘i achieved statehood, and the sister-state relationship between Hawai‘i and Hiroshima Prefecture, which was signed in 1997. Next month, the 20th anniversary of that relationship will be celebrated when Hawai‘i welcomes Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki; Prefectural Assembly chair Shin Uda; past chair Masao Hayashi and the staff of the International Affairs Division . . . which leads me back to Reiko-mama.
While working for the Hiroshima International Affairs Division in 2008, Reiko’s supervisor asked her if she would be willing to host an English-speaking student, as one more host family was needed. Reiko and her husband Keisuke agreed to host a student because they believed strongly in the program and its mission, and Reiko felt she was proficient enough in English to welcome a homestay student into their home. The program encourages students to stay with their own relatives; if they do not have relatives in Hiroshima, however, a host family will be assigned to them.
“Hiroshima is my furusato (ancestral home) and I’m thankful,” said Reiko. “It’s the place where I learned how to be a good person, and if I can share some of that, I’m happy,” she said. Reiko has hosted students five times since her first experience.
“Hiroshima people are warm-hearted. Even though they had a difficult life because of the atomic bombing, the people have a strong spirit and soul and Hiroshima is now a city of peace,” Reiko said. “I’m happy to host students, help with events, work on these kinds of programs! I love people and enjoy making friends; it’s fun for me! I learn so much from everyone and I enjoy sharing Hiroshima with everyone,” said Reiko, who now works for JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) in Hiroshima.
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