Japanese group to return to Middletown for Sister City Project

Osaki City residents visited city three years ago, will be first group since devasting tsunami.

The Sister City Project will celebrate the unprecedented return for seven Japanese people, three years after the group made its first trip and a year after a devastating earthquake and tsunami decimated their country.

Judy Thorn, Middletown Sister City Project president, said this is the first time in the program’s 22-year history the same group of visitors from Osaki City will return. The group will be in the city March 23-28.

In March 2011, Japan experienced a 9.0-magnitude earthquake that sparked a tsunami that inundated 217 square feet of the northwest part of the country and resulted the meltdown of nuclear reactors at Fukushima, about 75 miles south of Osaki City. More than 19,000 people died in the disasters, and many still have yet to recover.

Having a new group come, even a year after the disasters was logistically impossible, said Thorn.

“For many of the young people that came before, they had never traveled outside their country,” she said. “The return was necessitated by the fact that passports were already in order, and their parents were already familiar and comfortable with the homes they were coming to in America.”

Last summer, the city sent a giant banner that read “Stay Strong” in English and Hiragana (a form of Japanese writing) to Osaki City signed by more than 4,000 Middletown residents. It was a goodwill act stating Middletown was thinking of and praying for its sister city, Thorn said.

“We’re really going to let them breathe because these kids have been through more than any of us have probably known,” she said.

The Sister City Program was established in 1990. This month’s group will mark the 12th trip made by guests from Osaki City, formerly Furukawa, to Middletown.

More than 55 Middletown families over the years have opened their homes to serve as hosts for Japanese visitors.

The Sister City exchange, Thorn said, “is based on the cultural exchange so that we learn about each other’s similarities and build friendships and partnerships based upon understanding and education.”

The group that comes to Middletown is immersed in American culture, Thorn said.

Melissa Malcolm and her husband, Tom Burns, hosted two of the Japanese students in 2009, and will host them again. They traveled all over Greater Cincinnati.

“We had a blast,” Malcolm said.

It’s important to be exposed to different cultures said Malcolm. While she was in high school, her family twice hosted yearlong exchange students, one from Norway and another from Denmark.

“I just think everybody needs to have a worldly view of life,” she said. “I love to see different cultures, and their culture is so different than ours.”

There was a language barrier with the Japanese students, but they overcame it with “charades” and they had a calculator-style audio translator.

“My older two (girls) and the two girls (from Japan) had a great time together,” Malcolm said. “We did lots of shopping and sight-seeing.”

Malcolm said she and the students, Haruka Sato and Mao Nanjo, still communicate today. When the earthquake and tsunami happened, panic raced through Malcolm and her family.

“They feel like my girls,” she said. “I was just horrified.”

The city had previously only sent one group to Japan, in the 1990s, Thorn said, but are in the planning stages to send a group of Middletown students to Japan next year.

“Our kids get an incredible world view opportunity, and their kids get an incredible world view opportunity,” Thorn said.

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