They’re a little shy and they giggle. A lot. But if there’s anything that a conversation through a translator with this group of 15 or so exchange students from Kanayama-Gero, Japan, reveals, teenagers are teenagers no matter where they’re from.
“Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen,” some of the students answered when asked what music they listen to.
The annual visit to Ketchikan by a group of Japanese students this year includes many of the staples of Southeast Alaska: fishing, a picnic in the Tongass National Forest and watching the spectacular sunsets.
In fact, though, if you ask them what stands out about Ketchikan, it’s the similarities between this place and their home. Ketchikan and Kanayama-Gero are actually sister cities: officially, it means there are special commercial and political bonds between two municipalities.
But sister cities also tend to share similar characteristics – this group of students say they feel right at home in Ketchikan’s mild climate and perpetual mist. They also recognize the friendliness of the people in Southeast.
If anything, an American might have a harder time relating to Japanese culture than the other way around.
One of the Kanayama students, a 14-year old, said she is a black belt in karate.
Ketchikan and Kanayama-Gero have been exchanging students for more than 20 years. The annual student visit is just one aspect of a larger teacher-exchange program run by the Ketchikan-Kanayama Exchange Association. The organization is entirely volunteer run and accepts minimal funding from the borough.
And if there’s anything the program is successful at, it’s inspiring young people to travel all over the world. When asked where they would like to travel to outside of Alaska, they named everywhere from Paris to New York to Korea.
For many of them, that curiosity about the world starts right here. Just ask Nao, who came to Ketchikan when she was 14 and is now a chaperone for the exchange program.
“I’ve been to 22 countries,” Nao said. “I was part of this group eight years ago. It changed my life.”
The students leave for home Thursday, but they gave Ketchikan and its people a big thank you before departing.