Chesterton Tribune

Exchange student Aiko Kawano keeps in touch with family as volcano, earthquake, tsunami hit homeland

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Being 17 years old and going to a foreign country for the first time can be intimidating enough. But it can be downright scary to be away from family and friends when two major catastrophes hit your home land.

That’s what has happened to Aiko Kawano, a junior foreign exchange student at Chesterton High School.

Kawano lives in southern Japan in Miyazaki near the Shinmoedake volcano. In late January, the volcano erupted for the first time in 52 years, spewing ash and toppling trees over a wide area. “I couldn’t believe it,” Kawano said about hearing the news. She said the eruption came as a complete surprise. Her family lost power but only for a day. Her mom, who works at an airport, couldn’t work for several days because of ash that covered everything.

Then this week came the horrific news of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck northern Japan, followed by another eruption at Shinmoedake.

“I was very scared,” Kawano said.

Because her home is far south of the area struck by the earthquake and the nuclear plant explosions, Kawano said her family hasn’t been impacted and hasn’t lost power -- unlike the Tokyo area to the north, where power is being rationed, and the areas in the Sendai region that are devastated. She’s able to communicate with her family freely through Facebook. “They’re fine,” she said.

Her classmates at CHS have been asking her about the earthquake throughout this week. “Most of my friends are thinking about my family. I tell them that they are fine,” she said.

Still, the disaster is on her mind. She’s been watching the news every day. “I want to get more information,” she said.

Japanese teacher Akiko Tsugawa has a somewhat different take. Tsugawa moved here in 2001, but most of her family still lives in Toyama, northwest of Tokyo near the coast of the Sea of Japan. Her family is also fine, but they heard the shakes from the quake.

To Tsugawa, the ongoing news is somewhat overwhelming, especially since there is little she can do to help. “I don’t what to see anymore. If I could be of help, I would,” she said.

This summer, Tsugawa will visit her hometown, as will Japanese teacher John Sparks and about 14 of the CHS Japanese students. Tsugawa said she may go to the devastated region to see if she can provide any aid, even if that consists of only hauling bottled water.

In the meantime, Tsugawa is organizing a collection drive for Japanese relief efforts, with the money raised going to a relief agency, likely the American Red Cross. Canisters left over from the cafeteria and boxes brought in by staff members will serve as the collection boxes, with the drive set to take place on Thursday and Friday. Tsugawa said a few businesses have also agreed to have a collection box in their offices. “I’m very grateful that they’re being so supportive,” she said.

At CHS, Kawano serves as a cultural ambassador, sharing her experiences and culture with the CHS students studying Japanese and helping them with the language. She has studied English for about 3 1/2 years. Her second foreign language that she’s learning is Chinese. At her home school, learning a foreign language is a standard part of the curriculum beginning in seventh grade.

Having lived and studied here all school year, Kawano has gotten a good taste of American life. What are some of the biggest lifestyle differences?

Kawano said in Japan, public transportation is very convenient, with the ability to go just about anywhere by hopping on a train. She said she has been to Chicago on the South Shore, but observed that the use of cars is much more prevalent here.

Another difference deals with schools. In Japan, the students listen to teachers in a lecture format. Here, the atmosphere is “more fun.”

But perhaps the biggest difference deals with diet. Kawano hesitated at first, but said that she can’t eat all the food that’s served here because the portions are too large. “It’s just my opinion, but I think Americans eat too much,” she said.

Kawano said she’s found the people here to be friendly and that she’s glad she signed up to be a foreign exchange student. But she’s also looking forward to June, when she will return home.

Status of Other Students, Staff

Sparks shared an update of former CHS students and staff who are now in Japan.

Kanako Goto, a former assistant Japanese teacher and local karate club member is in Tokyo and is fine.

Former exchange student Shiho Fukuda lives in northern Japan but she and her family are fine. Her father is in the Japanese army known as the Japan Self Defense Force and is working on rescue efforts.

Former exchange students Maya Tsuaki from Hiroshima and Taka Ikemoto from southern Japan live far away from the earthquake area and are fine.

Former exchange student Kiriko Tanaka is in Tokyo and is ok.

CHS grads Erica Reynolds and Grant Schechner teach in Japan in the Japanese Ministry of Education’s Japan Exchange & Teaching Program and are fine.



Posted 3/16/2011