LARGO — A longtime friendship will be renewed and some new ones will likely be created in November when 22 representatives from Largo’s sister city in Japan will visit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the bond between the two cities.
The city of Kami has a relationship with Largo that was initiated in 1969 by Lions Club International. Spearheading the welcoming committee was longtime Largo resident George Feaster, a founding member of the Sister Cities cultural exchange who has traveled to Kami several times.
In honor of the anniversary, Feaster says the Lions Club and city want to make this trip one to remember, but they need help from the community in the form of host families for the delegation who will be traveling more than 7,000 miles to experience a taste of American culture.
“For the host family, it’s a real experience,” Feaster said. “They’ll make everlasting friendships.”
Feaster said the visitors will be age 30 and older and come from a variety of backgrounds, so families of all sorts and sizes are welcome.
Some of those attending will be the mayor of Kami, several council members, a prefecture and five Lions Club members.
The cultural exchange has become a family tradition for some visitors.
When Feaster signed the sister city agreement with what was then known as Tosayamada, Japan, in 1969, he befriended a fellow funeral director who would later come here with the first contingent of Japanese travelers in 1971.
“Coming on the 50th anniversary is his grandson and great-granddaughter,” Feaster said. “So this is going to be the fourth generation that’ll be here.”
The city, in conjunction with Largo Lions Club, have several activities planned for the trip, including a welcoming celebration, a tour of Largo’s amenities and businesses, shopping and fishing trips, and even an outing to swim with some manatees.
“It’s a wild tour for four or five days. But that’s how they travel,” Feaster said.
An educational experience
Deborah Pettingill knows how special such trips can be.
Pettingill, who has taught at Largo High School for the past 20 years, took a group of seven students to Japan for two weeks in June.
The members of the school’s Japanese Friendship Club visited the students of Yamada High School in Kami, marking the 25th anniversary of student exchanges between the two schools.
Pettingill said the trip also included stops at Hiroshima Peace Park, where the atomic bomb was dropped, and Tokyo.
“I really feel that traveling with students can make such a big difference in their lives,” she said, adding that three alumni have even taken part in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, which allows young professionals to live and work at schools in Japan. “The majority over the years who have gone with me have never traveled to another country and many haven’t been out of Pinellas County. So we opened up a lot of things to them and opened up the possibilities of what they could do.”
While in Kami, the students stayed with host families, which Pettingill said is the best way to learn about and appreciate another culture.
It also teaches both the guests and hosts a valuable lesson that she says is becoming more valuable by the day.
“We’re afraid of what we don’t know,” she said. “The more experience we have with people who are from a different culture or a different place, the more we can see and understand that we have so much more that is the same about us than we have that is different. I think this becomes especially important in our current world that we have these experiences with people that are different and help us to see that different isn’t bad.”
Much like Feaster, she said the relationships forged can be long-lasting. In fact, she is still in contact with one of the first students she hosted in 2000.
“I see her every time I go to Japan. I visited with her this last time,” she said.
Language not a barrier
Feaster, who was honored in December by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for his five decades of efforts, said potential hosts shouldn’t be concerned if they don’t speak Japanese.
He said the welcoming committee has interpreters lined up, and technology, such as translators on smartphones, makes communication easier.
Kim Feaster, George’s wife and the president of the Largo Lions Club, said she understands why someone might be apprehensive about the language barrier because she was as well.
“The first time I had the opportunity to host a couple I was extremely nervous,” she said. “I didn’t know Japanese, and was wondering how I would communicate with our guests. We found it easy to communicate with signs and expressions. At the end of the nine days, we were both crying at the airport, as we had become very good friends.”