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International Youth Association of Japan (KSKK):Helping children broaden their world through global experience

This month's Close UP features the International Youth Association of Japan (Kokusai Seishonen Kenshu Kyokai or KSKK), which was founded in 1973 and is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Aiming to support children and youth to expand their world through group living and international exchange experiences, the association offers a variety of programs both in and outside Japan. For this interview, we spoke to Hiroshi Momose, executive director, Hiroyuki Takada, domestic program director, and Noriko Yamamura, international program manager.

Mr. Momose, executive director (center), accompanied by Mr. Takada, director (left) and Ms. Yamamura, manager (right)

Mr. Momose, executive director (center), accompanied by Mr. Takada, director (left) and Ms. Yamamura, manager (right)

Can you give us an overview of the programs offered by KSKK?

A. Mr. Momose: Our programs are mainly divided into those for elementary through high school students and those for college students. A majority of the programs we offer, both domestic and international, are for elementary through high school students. Each program is age-appropriately designed so that children can gradually step up their experiences, starting with an easy and casual program and then moving to one with more definite purpose. For example, we have overseas programs for various different purposes, including those to experience foreign life and culture, school, nature, volunteer work, or language training. So participants may try one that centers fun and play at first, and then join the school experience program next if they are interested in studying abroad in the future, or the language training program if they want to improve their foreign language skills.

Please give us more details about your overseas programs.

Smile with local host family
© International Youth Association of Japan

A. Ms. Yamamura: 90 percent of the participants of our overseas programs are children who are traveling overseas for the first time and hardly speak English. We send children only to places with which we have been in a good relationship for twenty to thirty years, so they understand our participants’ background very well. Many parents show their concerns about whose home their children are staying at, but our host families are all generous who would treat our participants as part of their family. In selecting the host families, we go through a careful process to make sure that all of our participants will have a fulfilling once-in-a-lifetime experience both in outside activities and at home with their host families. We received great support and encouragement at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake last year, and the host families are more willing to take in children from the Tohoku area.

Are there any unique features of the overseas programs?

A. Mr. Momose: In all of our overseas programs, except for the camping program, participants stay at the home of their host families from the first day they arrive until the last day they leave. Each program always includes a Japanese Culture Presentation event on the schedule, in which participants sing and dance to introduce Japanese culture to local people. The program participants are asked to prepare their presentation prior to their departure and practice together with other participants after the program begins. They decorate the room for the event by themselves. To make their experience satisfactory, it is important that they take action by themselves. Making friends is the same thing. Our role is to make suggestions on how to prepare tools that might be helpful for them, such as putting together a photo album and using it as a communication tool.

At the Japanese Culture Presentation event
© International Youth Association of Japan

What do you hear from children who have participated in the overseas programs?

A. Ms. Yamamura: Everyone says that they feel more confident after the program although they are not always sure why. Those children came to Tokyo by taking a train or a plane alone, made friends with other kids from around Japan, left their family and country behind, and lived with a family they met for the first time in a foreign country. I think those experiences give them hope that there will be always friends wherever they go and also instill confidence that they can do fine in a new environment. Being exposed to foreign cultures, they start seeing differences between Japan and other countries. It means a significant change for children who only knew about their neighborhood before but now are able to view themselves compared to friends from different parts of the country and to view their own country compared to other countries around the world.

What are your domestic programs like?

Sleeping in kamakura at winter camp in Hokkaido
© International Youth Association of Japan

A. Mr. Momose: Our domestic programs are designed mainly for elementary school children and include international exchange programs and outdoor activity experience programs. We currently offer two international exchange programs, including “Kids Exploration School in Yoron Island” in spring and “Mt. Fuji Youth International Exchange Camp” in summer. Both programs are constructed of fun activities and play to provide children with a very basic experience of international exchange. They are unique in that the program period is rather long, 6 nights/7 days for the Yoron program and 4 nights/5 days for the Mt. Fuji program. Between those two programs, we run the outdoor activity experience programs, which offer different experiences from the international programs. During the Golden Week holidays, we have “Walk & Sleep Outdoors Tour,” during which participants walk about 10 kilometers per day and sleep outdoors in a sleeping bag on plastic tarps. During the summer, we also offer a camp program on an uninhabited island as “Kids Adventure School in an Uninhabited Island.” At the end of the year, we also have “Kids Exploration School in Hokkaido” to let children build and stay in a kamakura snow igloo.

The outdoor programs sound quite challenging for elementary school students.

A. Mr. Momose: Some parts of the programs may be tough for children, such as carrying heavy luggage or walking in the cold. At the camp on the uninhabited island, participants build their tent with plastic tarps and bamboo trees and make bowls and plates by cutting out bamboo with a saw and a chopper. They may be asked to use knives to clean the fish they have caught. We don’t teach them step by step but rather let them copy what their leaders do.
A. Mr. Takada: What is common in all the programs is that it is our goal to help participating children expand their world through different experiences. It is also our hope that they acquire life skills and customs that are necessary as they grow up. Those skills include greeting appropriately, telling appreciation to those who have helped them, and organizing their belongings. Because more parents tend to pamper their children these days, many of them seem to grow up without developing ability of thinking and acting on their own. In our program, the children are expected to accomplish tasks by themselves as much as possible.

We understand that children from non-Japanese families also participate in the international exchange programs.

A. Mr. Takada: For our spring program on Yoron Island, about 120 children from foreign families living in Japan, including students from American schools in Okinawa, an Indonesian school in Tokyo, and children of embassy staff, will join the activities along with about 150 to 200 Japanese children coming from around the nation. We have students from Brazilian schools in Hamamatsu in the Mt. Fuji camp, although the number of foreign participants is much smaller than the Yoron program.

At the youth international
exchange camp in Mt. Fuji
© International Youth Association of Japan

How do children spend their days in the Yoron program?

Floating in the ocean on the raft
they built by themselves
© International Youth Association of Japan

A. Mr. Takada: This program has been offered for 36 years. In recent years, however, we find more children who seem to be anxious about making new friends at the program, probably because they have been spending more time in playing alone with personal computers and game devices. They will do fine when others come and speak to them--the most difficult step for these children is who will be the first one to start a conversation. At the Yoron program, the participants are divided into seven groups according to the local inns at which they stay. We provide each child with a bandana in a different color that matches his/her group, partly as a way to encourage them to find and speak to someone staying at the same inn. Also, after the students of American schools join the boat on the way to the island, the children seem to get along with each other fine through working together in the activities regardless of the language barrier between them. As part of the program, the children work on a project of building rafts together. When they finish making the rafts and taking them out to the ocean to actually float on them, the children seem to find themselves experiencing a sense of achievement and self-confidence for completing the project from the start to the end. At a farewell party we have on the last night of the program, each group makes an entertaining performance and has great fun together, thanks to a close tie and friendship that have been established in the group.

How do Japanese and non-Japanese children get along with each other?

A. Mr. Takada: On the way returning home, the American students from Okinawa get off the boat first. They won’t leave the port and keep waving to us on the boat as it departs. Some kids run to chase the boat along the pier, which often make Japanese kids emotional and cry. Some children keep contact with each other as pen pals after the program. It is such a joy to see children who only understand Japanese gradually becoming more confident and brave in communicating with American and Indonesian children by taking full advantage of gestures through a cooperative work. They learn how to express their feelings to others without relying on the languages, and I’m sure that this skill will become a great help in the children’s future.

Children having great time together at the farewell party
© International Youth Association of Japan

What do you hear from parents of the participants after the program?

We all became good friends
© International Youth Association of Japan

A. Mr. Takada: Because of the length of the program, many parents feel anxious first when they send their children alone to the program. However, they become convinced that they made the right decision after their children come home and start boasting about how much fun they had on Yoron Island. We have an increasing number of returning participants, which also makes us happy. The kids come back with their own next goal set and try different programs step by step—first Yoron, then Mt. Fuji, an uninhabited island, and eventually a foreign country, for example. Some older children come back to take a youth volunteer leader training to join the program as a leader of other younger children. What is most rewarding for us is to directly witness such growth of our participant children.

Tell us about the volunteer leaders.

A. Mr. Takada: We have about 30 to 40 participants every year for our youth volunteer leader trainings, and about 10 of those become our certified leaders after passing the exam. So far, a total of about 280 leaders have served in the programs. About 80 percent of the leaders are college students, and many of those are students majoring in education, welfare, or foreign languages. For the summer camp and the Yoron program, we also have junior volunteer leaders, who are junior high and high school students. Junior volunteer leaders are past program participants who want to become a youth leader in the future and receive on-the-job training while working together with the youth leaders. About 10 students help the programs as a junior volunteer leader every year.

Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

A. Mr. Momose: Although most of our volunteer leaders are college students, we also welcome adults who are interested in becoming the leaders regardless of their age, sex, and job. We are also looking for host families who can take in children visiting Japan from foreign countries. Japanese people tend to think that becoming a host family is like having a special guest staying with them and requires extra work, but that’s not necessarily true. You don’t have to change your daily routine or everyday meals. We are looking forward to hearing from as many interested families as possible.

You may send an inquiry to KSKK from the site below if you are interested in the programs and need more information: (in Japanese only)