More than 25 years ago, two Japanese and American war veterans set themselves to closing the gap over the Pacific Ocean — one individual at a time.
"What Mr. Wendell Fish and Mr. Masao Kato said to each other was, 'Let us get to know each other better and let us start by using our kids,' " said Daniel Hoffman, the international services director of the Newport-Balboa Rotary Club.
A student exchange between Newport Beach and Okazaki, Japan, first began informally through the Newport-Balboa and Okazaki South Rotary clubs, but was quickly endorsed with the creation of the Sister City Assn., Hoffman said.
The exchange of "young ambassadors" has since become an annual one-to-one exchange, where an average of six Newport Beach and Costa Mesa middle school students leave for Japan each July and then return the responsibilities as host to the same Japanese families in October.
Board member Dory Ford of the Sister Cities Assn. will be one of this year's chaperones, accompanying the group to Okazaki. She became involved with the exchange program when her son, now an adult, was an eighth-grader about to embark on the same Rotary Club-sponsored trip.
"It was really a life-changing experience for him," Ford said. "This program is all about fostering cultural understanding, one person at a time. [My son] looked at the world a lot more globally afterward; at that age, you can have a lot of borders in your mind."
This year's group of travelers met up on a recent Wednesday night at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Corona del Mar to introduce themselves to each other and members of the community. However, once they arrive in Japan, each student will stay in a separate Japanese household and attend different schools with their host-student.
The Orange County students will be able to communicate with each other via e-mail and program members can keep close tabs over how each student is adjusting, Hoffman said.
"We have trusted, reliable people in Japan, so that if there is anything, say a linguistic issue, they will be able to get a translator," Hoffman said. "The kids will not feel lost."
When the students have returned, they are encouraged to go through their various channels or student governments and community programs to spread their newfound cultural awareness, Ford said.
"Kids listen to their peers. If they hear adults say that they should learn about other cultures, that means nothing," Ford said. "But when it comes from other kids, it really creates an impact."
The Sister City Assn. will also be sending students to Antibes, France, in July, where Newport's French sister city is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its relationship with Newport Beach. Additionally, the organization sends students to conferences worldwide as representatives of Newport Beach.
To become involved, a student must attend either Corona del Mar Middle School or Ensign Intermediate School and complete an application and screening process through the Newport Beach Sister City Assn. The process can be started on the organization's website www.newportbeachsistercity.org.