Miami Through Japanese Eyes

For 24 years, Miami has cultivated a unique opportunity to shine in the eyes of students from Kagoshima, Japan. Each year, as part of the Sister Cities program, Kagoshima sends middle and high school teens to spend a week in Miami immersed in our culture, hosted by carefully selected exchange student families.

Palmetto Senior High School Japanese language teacher Mieko Avello has been deeply involved with the program for the past six years, “Beyond language, this program allows students to interact and gain life experiences they can’t get anywhere else.”

Nana with Palmetto Senior High School Japanese language teacher Mieko Avello

Nana with Palmetto Senior High School Japanese language teacher Mieko Avello

With her dedication, three of the eight visiting Japanese students spent time shadowing MPSHS students and living with their host families. We were luck enough to be a host family.

For the entire week, we immersed 14-year old Nana Kabayama in as much Miami possible. We began with dinner at Shorty’s to give her a taste of Miami. It was immediately clear this was going to be special for all of us with her broad smiles and palpable thanks. When we visited Miami Seaquarium, you could literally see her eyes opening to new things. Early on, Nana focused on our wildlife. Squirrels, iguanas and peacocks seemed her favorite. The dolphins and killer whale at Miami Seaquarium certainly entertained.

The mundane details of our lives also proved quite interesting. She marveled at the size of our drinking cups. At the movie theater where she saw ‘Big Hero 6’, Nana remarked, “Even the small size is taller than my hand!”

Signs for food and the sheer serving sizes seemed to also be impressive to her. “I want it all, but I cannot eat so much.”

One evening at home we had BBQ hamburgers and a lit the fire pit, cooking s’mores for dessert. While she certainly liked a lot of our food, s’mores seemed to be her all-time favorite.

Nana thoroughly enjoyed her time at Santa’s Enchanted Forest, a uniquely Miami Christmas-themed amusement experience (open through January 4). “The rides and lights are so pretty. It is beautiful!”

She also loved visiting Animate! Miami, Florida's largest anime convention. “Americans can be fun, dressing as their favorite characters and playing the parts.”

One night, Nana met CBS4’s Eliott Rodriguez, Eric Folbaum and Irica Sargent during a tour of the WFOR-TV studios.

While language was certainly a barrier at times really trying converse with Nana, we were impressed with the ability to use translation apps on our iPhones to bridge the gap. Just like here in the U.S., each Japanese student certainly loved their smartphones and used them extensively during their trip.

While a smartphone and the Internet, certainly make our world smaller and seemingly more accessible, Kagoshima-Miami Sister Cities program’s chairman Jose Fuentes remarked, “We feel that both American and Japanese students are incorrectly believing that seeing photos and videos of a place constitutes experiencing that place. This program proves what we adults know, there is no substitute for the real thing.”

Before her departure, Nana and our family exchanged all the photos we took during her visit. Much like the incredible insight gained by viewing the road-trip photos taken by Raymond in the 1998 film “Rain Man”, looking at the shots from Nana’s camera provided me a unique perspective on how Miami is perceived by foreign eyes.

It is clear that we are less reserve, almost to the point of flashy and showy, and that we have more visual stimulus in our daily lives than in Japan. The photos showed that we often overlook items of beauty in our daily lives that caught Nana’s attention. A selection of her pictures can be seen in this gallery and you can click here to see some photos when the girls first arrived in Miami and met Miami Mayor Tomás Pedro Regalado.

At the goodbye dinner hosted by Miami’s Japanese Consul General Shinji Nagashima remarked with a smile, “We had eight Kagoshima students visit Miami this year, all of them female. If you are curious why, it is simply that every boy candidate failed the qualification tests.”

Shy and demure, Nana and the rest of the Japanese students certainly made their impact on our lives. It is eye-opening to hear about their culture and mannerisms, not to mention the reflection of Miami they provided.

Next year in November will mark the 25th anniversary of the Kagoshima-Miami Sister Cities exchange program. Like many cultural events of its kind, it needs support. Jose Fuentes quickly pointed out, “We are not necessarily looking for money or charity. “We need the support and awareness of the community that will then prompt the Miami government to fund and keep this worthy program going.” The Kagoshima government funds 75% of the costs of their students’ trips. Miami shoulders no costs for our students headed there.