COLUMBIA — Six students from a 2008 sister city exchange program helped plant one of three cherry trees to mark the rededication of the cherry grove at Cosmopolitan Park to honor Columbia's longstanding relationship with Hakusan, Japan, and Hakusan's former mayor Mitsuo Kado.
Although the cherry trees honoring Columbia’s sister city relationship with Hakusan were originally planted in 1995, the ties between Columbia and Hakusan date back to 1988. Kado welcomed hundreds of Columbia exchange students throughout his 12-year mayoral career before his death in October.
The 2008 Columbia exchange students were the most recent group to experience the program. Upon the students' arrival in Hakusan, Kado and other city officials met them during a welcoming ceremony at the city hall.
Hickman High School sophomore Kailin Tientes said that, although the atmosphere appeared formal, they received a warm reception.
“We sat in a circle and talked to the officials,” said Abby Staysa, a senior at Rock Bridge High School. “The language barrier was difficult, but they made an effort to speak with us.”
Staysa said her experience in Japan changed her life.
“Going to Japan set my path in what I wanted to study,” Staysa said. “It made me realize there’s a world outside of high school.”
West Junior High School Japanese instructor Yoko Smith accompanied the students on their journey overseas. Smith said Kado sought to deepen the sister city relationship by strengthening the bonds between the Japanese and American cultures.
"We got to meet the mayor and other officials," Smith said. "They welcomed us to stay with them and wanted us to learn more about Hakusan and Japanese culture."
From a cultural standpoint, Staysa said, Japan’s rich history heavily influenced everyday life. She said the main cultural difference she noticed was the constant attitude of respect from the Japanese.
“In Hakusan, air conditioning’s really expensive,” Staysa said. “I didn’t know that, so I kept it on all the time and they never asked me to turn it off. I found out after I left that they got an expensive bill, but they never told me about how much it would cost if it was left on because they didn’t want to impose.”
At the end of their 15-day visit, Kado held a farewell ceremony for the Columbia students where they each gave a speech, Tientes said. She said her speech was the longest, and Kado approached her afterward.
“He congratulated me and gave me ice cream,” Tientes said.
While in Japan, the students toured Kyoto, visited Mount Fuji, explored museums and shrines, and lived in Japanese cabins in the woods.
Before traveling to Hakusan, the Columbia students housed Japanese exchange students.
“I don’t have any siblings, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to be,” said Cori Mead, a junior at Hickman. “We ended up being best friends. She had no trouble adjusting and really, really liked America. She ate as much pasta and cheeseburgers as possible, but she didn’t like root beer.”
Economic constraints forced a hiatus after the 2008 group's trip to Japan. Despite the program’s hiatus, the cities still maintain close relations, Columbia spokeswoman Renee Graham said.
“When the decision was made to discontinue the program, Kado hoped to find new ways to sustain the relationship, and that’s been a big focus since his passing,” Graham said. “We can do that by giving the cherry grove more prominence. Just because we took a recess from the program, we didn’t want to sever ties.”
Under the cherry tree dedicated to Kado will sit a plaque displaying one of his favorite Japanese proverbs: “A public servant’s mind is clear, like the sun and the moon. Spend every day with a firm resolution to serve the people, without any selfish desire.”