Exchange program opens students to culture of Japanese 'sisters'

Lisa Johnston |

At Notre Dame High School last week, the normal chatter of teenage girls was replaced with a lot of smiling and giggling between students and their visitors from Japan.

Twelve junior- and senior-high students from Notre Dame School in Kyoto were visiting as part of an annual cultural exchange between the sister schools. The Kyoto school was founded by American School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1952 to help rebuild the community after World War II.

The language barrier between students didn't prohibit them from interacting, as the Kyoto girls gave demonstrations on calligraphy and origami. Sophomore Jaidy Carranza watched with fascination as one of the Kyoto students illustrated in Japanese calligraphy the word "ohana," a Hawaiian term for family, and one of Carranza's favorite sayings from the movie "Lilo and Stitch."

Beyond the cultural exchange between the two schools (Kyoto students received the royal St. Louis treatment -- a visit to the Arch, a riverboat cruise, Ted Drewes and Imo's Pizza), students see how the School Sisters of Notre Dame live their charism.

According to Sister Michelle Emmerich, principal of the St. Louis high school, the sisters' charism is "proclaiming the Good News wherever we are sent," with a particular focus on education and with women, children and the poor. The Kyoto school serves about 800 girls in grades seven through twelve.

"After the war, it was important for us to have a presence there, and the school grew by leaps and bounds very quickly," Sister Michelle said. The sisters later opened a co-ed elementary school, which has about 1,000 students; and Kyoto Notre Dame University, a women's college with an enrollment of about 5,000.

Sister Michelle said that in Japan, people place high importance on education throughout a person's lifetime, and there are many good public schools; people choose private schools because of the single-gender education and the values. While the majority of the country practices Buddhism or other eastern religions, families highly regard the Christian values taught at the SSND schools.

Notre Dame High School in St. Louis sends students to Kyoto every three years (the trip is cost-prohibitive to send students every year, according to Sister Michelle), and one student from Kyoto comes here for a year of studies. When the St. Louis students return, parents often say that their daughter "has become a confident, compassionate young woman" because of her experience, Sister Michelle said.

Rie Kitamura, a 17-year-old Kyoto student, said she would like to have a job that requires her to speak English, though she hasn't decided on a career path. "I would like to live here," she said through an intrepreter. "Everybody's really friendly."

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