Thurston County students soak up Japanese culture in annual sister city exchange

From high-tech toilets to green tea ice cream, several Thurston County students got a crash course in Japanese culture this summer through a long-standing exchange program.

The Olympia-Kato Sister City Association sponsored a trip to Kato City, Japan, from July 28 through Aug. 9 as part of the annual Student Ambassador Program. While in Japan, 16 local high school students each stayed with a host family and regularly met for group tours.

Romie Pugh, a junior at Olympia High School, praised her host family’s generosity. She even made breakfast for the hosts, who were so impressed by her fried eggs that the host mother cooked a batch the next morning.

“The mother told me, ‘I made eggs like you guys. You inspire me,’” Pugh said.

The food occasionally got too exotic for some tastes, Pugh said, especially when it came to squishy seafood textures. She preferred noodles and yakisoba, but willingly sampled anything offered by her generous hosts.

“They’re so hospitable,” she said of her hosts and the Japanese in general. “They really enjoy taking care of people.”

As a self-described adventurous eater, Olympia High School student Winston Seaman said he couldn’t handle green tea ice cream or an over-salted hunk of watermelon. Seaman said he also got red-faced when visiting a hot springs because everyone bathes in the nude.

However, Seaman was among a handful of local students with the courage to use an automatic washing feature on the high-tech toilets commonly found in Japan.

“There’s some power behind it,” Seaman said of the option on many toilets.

During their visit, Pugh and Seaman said the Japanese insisted on speaking English and embraced American cultural exports such as the hit movie “Frozen.” The U.S. students were fascinated by the customs and everyday habits of the Japanese – everything from shoe removal indoors to their camera-happy ways around Americans.

The local students noticed that people aren’t as concerned about personal space, Seaman said, recalling a time he visited a crowded weight room. In another contrast, they learned that Kato City’s high school students adhere to strict rules and are not allowed to drive cars to school, for example, or wear piercings and makeup.

Another difference between Japan and the U.S., as observed by several students, was the culture of respect. Pugh said the patient attitudes of Japanese airport staff contrasted with the harsher tones of employees at Sea-Tac Airport.

“It’s so much a part of their culture to be respectful in everything,” Pugh said.

In particular, the Japanese show deep respect for their elder citizens. Seaman learned that seniority matters, even by one year, and said the oldest member of a group will always pick up the restaurant tab, for example.

“Age is so respected there,” he said.

The sister cities take turns with the exchange program. Thurston County students travel to Japan during even-numbered years, and next summer, students from Kato City will visit the Olympia area.

The program is open to all students in Thurston County and typically attracts high-achieving applicants, said Myrna Lance, a volunteer with the sister city association. Lance lauded the program for providing a cultural connection and filling a local educational void.

“At one time, more high schools taught Japanese,” said Lance, who joined the students this summer in Japan with her husband, Bill.