The educational exchange between Astoria and Japan, foisted on the Asian nation 166 years ago by a native Astorian bent on leaving his whaling vessel and joining its relatively closed society, restarted earlier this week.
Honoring the spirit of Ranald MacDonald, an Astoria native and Japan’s first English teacher, the MacDonald’s Encouragement Study Fund sent two students and their English teacher from Rishiri Island to Oregon this past week. The group has been sightseeing around Portland and shadowing their host students at Astoria High School.
“I like talking, speaking English,” said Ren Miyashita, one of the two students visiting Astoria. “I’ve never been abroad before this time.”
Miyashita, in his second to last year of school, and Takeru Oshima, a senior, both come from Rishiri Island, located 12 miles west of northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The island, reachable by ferry and one flight a day, boasts a population of about 5,100.
Miyashita and Oshima attend Rishiri High School, which with a total of 93 kids is about 16 percent of Astoria High School’s enrollment. Rishiri Island also includes three elementary schools and two junior high schools.
“The whole objective is to internationalize the future generations of Rishiri Island by having a couple of students come over each year so they will be ready for life in a global world,” said Masaru Yatabe, chairman of the Friends of MacDonald.
MacDonald, who was born at Fort Astoria in 1824 to a Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trader, traded his wages on the whaler for a small boat and supplies and sailed toward Rishiri Island at age 24. Nearing some native Ainu fishermen, he pulled the plug, and in his sinking boat, he became a bona fide sailor in distress.
Originally imprisoned, MacDonald eventually started teaching Japanese scholars English. He became famous in Japan. Congressional reports note an interpreter asking incoming Commodore Matthew Perry, who forcibly opened Japan to trade with the U.S. in the mid-19th century, “Do you know Ranald MacDonald?”
The 26-year-old Friends of Ranald MacDonald help guide the students and teacher on their trip. They started earlier this week in Portland with sightseeing trips to the International Test Rose Gardens and Multnomah Falls.
The group also met with the consulate-general of Japan in Portland, Hiroshi Furusawa. At the consulate, said Yatabe, Furusawa explained how Japan is trying to double the number of people in the Japan Exchange & Teaching Program, which sends young, college-educated English speakers to communities around Japan.
In Astoria for the past few days, Miyashita and Oshima have been attending sporting events, exploring the area and shadowing their host students, juniors Kaheawai “KK” Kaonohi and Bryce Nurding.
Kaonohi, who moved to Astoria from Bend, started a Japanese club at AHS, having traveled to Japan himself over the summer.
“I was part of the Japanese National Honor Society,” said Kaonohi, adding that his grandmother in Hawaii is originally from Japan.
Nurding, who’s hosted cyclists from Virginia and Sweden through hospitality exchange group Warm Showers, said he was contacted by Kaonohi and is always up for hosting and learning about different people and cultures.
Miyashita and Oshima take all the classes of their host students, including math, science, language arts and other classes as they expand their English skills. They describe their peers in Astoria as freer and more open to asking questions. Yatabe and Nakanishi said that students in Japan respect the teachers more and are much less likely to speak up, often to the detriment of their own social skills.
This is the second year of the exchange through the MacDonald’s Encouragement Study Fund. Last year, students Tatsuya Koujiya and Yuuki Komatsu arrived in Astoria with their principal, Hiroyuki Tsukamoto.
For 2016, said Yatabe, Kaonohi is trying to organize a similar trip to Rishiri Island, where he and Nurding can experience life there, although the effort will likely require raising the funds. “Then the exchange will be complete.”
On Friday, after attending the Astoria-Banks football game, the exchange group heads for a similar experience in Republic, Wash., where MacDonald died in 1894.