After more than a decade, the high school student exchange program between Pendleton and its Japanese sister city is on the edge of ending.
But parties on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are talking about ways to keep the exchanges going.
Mihoko Endo is again the chaperone of this year’s Japanese students, four boys and one girl, all in their early teens. But Endo said Friday she feels an extra burden to be a good cultural ambassador to encourage the continuation of the exchanges. Minamisoma, Pendleton’s sister city, sent students this year and in 2012, but Pendleton hasn’t reciprocated since the summer before the tsunami of March 2011.
”We think the exchange program should not be stopped,” Endo said. “We are worried about it.”
The issue is radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that is located 16 miles south of Minamisoma, The earthquake and tsunami devastated the city and crippled the plant, creating the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986. Minamisoma was in the evacuation zone near the Daiichi plant, and many of its 73,000 people relocated.
Endo said radiation in Minamisoma has dropped to safe levels. Minamisoma’s population is now about 63,000. She said some families didn’t return because parents found new jobs or don’t want to yank their children out of new schools. Still, she said Minamisoma officials appreciate the concerns Pendleton parents and city leaders have about radiation dangers.
To help alleviate the worry, she said, Minamisoma proposed to have Pendleton students spend their first week in Kyoto, a city of about 1.5 million in central Japan and around 300 miles from Minamisoma. For the second week, the students would live with host families in the sister city in time for its annual horse-related festival in late July.
Kyoto is a Japanese tourism hotspot. The city has persevered many historic structures and is home to Japan’s former Imperial Palace. But Endo said the Pendleton students would have to live in hotel rooms in Kyoto and not with families.
Karin Power said that might diminish the cultural experience for the students. Power is hosting Endo and visited Minamisoma in 2006. She said her three-week stay with a Japanese family was a true learning experience. Hotel stays, even in Kyoto, wouldn’t be the same.
Yet, she stressed, any opportunity to experience the other culture would be good for Pendleton students.
Pendleton Mayor Phillip Houk said the Kyoto idea was intriguing but would miss the objective of the exchange. He and other Pendleton representatives talked with Endo about sending a deligation of seven adults in April to Minamisoma to see for themselves the situation in the city.
“From our standpoint, we need more data before sending our students there,” Houk said. Gathering that information first-hand would allow an informed decision about resuming the exchange program.
Funding the exchange on the Pendleton end is also on rocky ground. The Pendleton Culture Foundation was the funnel to provide money to send the Pendleton students, but the IRS in May 2012 revoked the organization’s tax exempt status after it failed to send tax returns or notices for three consecutive years.
Houk, who served on the foundation in the past, said the foundation now is down to a president and treasurer, and they are trying to reform the organization. The East Oregonian left messages for the foundation’s president, Melissa Newhouse, but she didn’t return calls Friday.
Houk said even if the student exchanges end, Pendleton doesn’t want to lose enthusiasm with regard to its sister city. Blue Mountain Community College has its sister college in Minamisoma, and business circumstances could arise to strengthen the sister-city relationship.
But Endo said for her and others in Minamisoma, the students exchanges are a way to extend gratitude to the aide Pendleton sent during the disaster.
“We want them to come,” she said. “We want to return the kindness.”