Saturday, September 1, 2012

Visitors from Japan take in Texas culture in Plano, other North Texas cities - Allen American

Photo courtesy of the city of Plano -- Seventeen visitors from Japan pose for a photo with Mayor Phil Dyer, who helped kick off the guests' three-day trip to the city of Plano to learn more about Texas culture through the Japan-America Grassroots Summit.

More than 160 visitors from Japan took in the sights, sounds and culture of North Texas last week as part of the 2012 Japan-America Grassroots Summit.

Visitors, ages 11 to 85, stayed with families in 15 North Texas cities including Plano, Richardson, McKinney, Parker, Dallas, Arlington, Denton and Fort Worth. Seventeen visitors from Kochi City, Kyoto and Tokyo stayed with Plano families Thursday until Sunday to learn about the culture and history of North Texas and Plano.

The Japan-America Grassroots Summit began 22 years ago. Each year, families from a different United States city visit Japan, where they stay with native families to learn about their local and national culture. The Japanese families, in turn, visit the U.S. later that year to do some learning of their own.

"This summit had its roots in a friendship between a Japanese citizen and a whaling captain almost 200 years ago," said Jackie Barnett, Plano community coordinator for the summit and member of the Japan-America Society of Dallas-Fort Worth. "That helped lead to the opening of Japan to trade with the western world and the modernizing of Japan. The objective of this is to foster friendships between the U.S. and Japanese citizens."

The guests arrived Thursday afternoon, meeting Mayor Phil Dyer and viewing a video detailing the history of the city and region before having a big, Texas-style cookout at the home of Jimbeh restaurant owners Amira and Ben Matsuda, whose sons visited Japan earlier this summer as part of the summit.

On Friday, the guests visited a working farm to learn about the agricultural history of the region. Lunch was served at Country Burger -- a "Plano institution," Barnett said -- before the group visited Centennial Elementary.

"The significance there is they speak over 25 languages in that school, and Plano's a very, very diverse community because of the industry here and the schools reflect that," Barnett said. "This is an elementary school with many different cultures and languages; you compare that to Japan where they're very homogeneous."

Next up was shopping at Willow Bend Mall, which Barnett said underlined for the visitors the vast changes the region has seen both economically and landscape-wise since it was agriculturally driven.

Finally, the group took in the gridiron action of the Plano Senior-Lewisville football game. They were escorted out on the field and introduced to the crowd by the Planoettes before being taken to the speaker's box to view the action.

"The significance of the game is that high school football is a big thing in Texas," Barnett said. "I'm from New Mexico, and football there is fun, but it's nothing like the fervor and enthusiasm you have at a Texas football game."

Akiko Ando was one of the visitors to make the 6,500-plus-mile trek. She had previously been involved with the summit two years ago when it was held in San Francisco. She described the city as "very impressive" and its people as "cheerful."

"I think grassroots relationships are very important," she said, adding that programs like the summit help people understand the culture, customs and beliefs of others. "If people can understand each other at the grassroots level, it would continue to be a good trend."

Barnett, who developed an interest in international relationships while serving as vice president of international business development for a company, said learning about the lives of people from different walks of life is a great way to form unique, lifelong friendships.

"We have lots of business relationships and lots of military relationships [with Japan], different kinds of purposeful relationships, but the key is the grassroots," she said.

Despite the challenges of trying to cram Texas culture into a day-and-a-half program and three days overall in the city, the experience was enriching for all, Barnett said.

"It's challenging, but everyone comes with an open mind and they're eager to do this," she said. "They are prepared to learn and grow with each other and continue the friendship."

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