In 1975 a seventeen year old boy from Nagasaki Japan landed in Minnesota, brought here by AFS, to be a foreign exchange student in the small farming community of Pierz, Minnesota. Junichiro Yamaguchi had to have all kinds of bravery to make that trek. He grew up in a high density city, one that was completely devastated by a nuclear bomb dropped by the U.S. during WWII.
In Japan, he lived in a high rise apartment, he rode the bus everywhere in the crowded city, and his only focus was school – he took his education very seriously. He was sent to Pierz to attend high school in a community that was mainly German Catholic, hard working, cow milking and crop raising farmers. The land is beautiful, and open fields stretch as far as the eye can see. There could not be two more different places on the planet.
June, as he was called for short, was to live with a local family and learn the culture and the language. To say there was culture shock for all is an understatement. He had started with one family and it did not work out well, and then was living with a teacher’s family for a while and that was not working out so well, and so by January the school counselor was desperately looking for an alternative. I was a senior in HS and the class VP. I had not gotten to know June very well since he had landed in September for the school year, but the counselor came to our class officer’s meeting and begged for help in finding a new family for June.
They wanted one with HS students in the home, so the transition would not be so difficult. The teacher he was living with had small children and no one to help June out with homework or his social life. He had hardly made it to any sporting events and was not doing well getting to know his classmates. He was having a little difficulty with his English and he was a really shy guy. Well I was always the kid at school who volunteered to take the hamster home over spring break and I fed any stray animal that came into the yard, so a kid without a home was an easy decision for me. I got right on it that evening and convinced my parents that we had room for June since my older brother and sister were in college and I wanted to bring him home. My parents kindly agreed, and within a week or so we had June living with us.
Well, I was from a big loud family and no one minces words, which in hindsight I think was really good for June. Everyone prior to that was treating him with kit gloves and yet not getting to know him or really talk to him. If we wanted to know something we just outright asked without beating around the bush. We questioned him on his culture and family and found out all kinds of interesting things we did not know about life in Japan. His mother sent him food from Japan and we asked to taste it and he seemed to really appreciate our interest. He did not even mind when we were honest and told him certain things we did not like. Like the thin sheet of dried seaweed that came in what looked like a Pringles can. He put it in everything, and in particular, when he put it in soup it looked like pond scum. It gave him permission to be honest with us as well. We told him about our culture and family and traditions and asked him about his and when he said English words wrong we corrected him, since he made it clear that he was here to become proficient at English. The first night home my Mom had made soup and as we talked around the table he ate the soup with chopsticks and made all kinds of loud slurping noises. We all laughed and told him that here we don’t make that kind of noise at the table. It is not polite. He smiled and used the spoon. When he first got to our house he was shy and barely talked and never smiled. He only talked when questioned. Within a few weeks he was running around the farm with us with a smile on his face and seemed to be enjoying school.
I was a senior, so we drove to school. It was not cool to take the bus and he liked the camaraderie of that. We sometimes picked up others on the way to school, so he got to meet and hang out with other students. I was on the varsity volleyball team too, so he came to that every week, and I went to all of the Football games, plays, and social events, so I dragged him along. When he first got to our house he seemed to always say “no” when I asked him to go anywhere with me. I think he was hesitant because of not knowing what it would be like or just being afraid. He also got up at 5 a.m. to do homework, which to me at the time seemed pretty excessive. After a few “no’s” from him I did not give him an option. I just said, “get your stuff we are going to the game” and made him come. After a while he never said no. I even took him to some outdoor beer parties. He was very hesitant about that at first, but I assured him it was part of the culture. After all it was the spring of 1976 and it was the culture. The beer parties were mainly in the woods with a big campfire and when I was ready to leave one night I found him being kissed by a drunk girl. I have to say no matter where in the world a guy is from, they need at least once in their life to make out with a drunk girl.
After a few beer parties and with the social events he got to know a lot of classmates and even had a date for prom. He was profient in English in no time with us helping him. We tried to teach him to water ski behind our boat and that was a failure, but he did love riding in the boat and being on the beach. When he first came he was also afraid of the farm animals and even our dog just because he was large, but he learned to like him and eventually seemed to love him soon after.
He helped on the farm with some cattle chasing and rock picking and even gardening. He had so many culture differences and not all of them worked out but we all made it work. Everyone was tolerant of the others and we learned as much from him as he learned from us. We all knew some Japanese words and I can still count to ten in Japanese. We knew a lot about life in Japan in getting to know that young scared boy from the big city and he got to know a lot about us. It may seem funny, but even today, just because we knew him, I feel a connection with Japan. The purpose of AFS is to build good will between countries and you would not think just exchanging kids would do that but it does. After this experience, Japan was not just a country, it had a face for us and it was June.
We lost track of him after a few years with him in college and all of us going our separate ways. Back then keeping in contact was more difficult. Now that we have email and the internet it has been easer. We have exchanged a few emails with him over the years and he became a successful business man in Japan and raised a family. I would love to hear what stories he tells of his time on the farm in Minnesota. I can imagine his children listening to his stories of trying to water ski, going to beer parties, going to American football games and chasing cows around in a field. Also him telling stories of driving our pickup through the creek and the back pastures and fixing fence and picking rocks. His kids probably think he is making it all up or at least exaggerating. We did have some fun and I think he did too.
The world became a smaller place for all of us after having June live with us. I thought I was doing him a favor by convincing my parents to let me bring him to our home and maybe we were, but it turned out to be a great experience for our whole family. It is funny in life how some of those small decisions become a big part of who we are. We learned that it is OK to be different. We learned that people from other countries have more similarities than differences from us, and we learned to not only respect the differences between us, but to appreciate and learn from those who are different. Most importantly we learned that showing respect, being honest, sharing laughter and sometimes a hug, bridges oceans and cultures and makes a scared boy feel safe, wanted and made for a positive experience for him to share on his side of the world about us.