Connecting the foreign community in Okinawa

HelloWorld Cultural Exchange Program: An International Adventure for Kids in Okinawa and Japan

The HelloWorld Cultural Exchange Program connects Okinawan students interested in overseas adventures with foreign families living in Okinawa and mainland Japan.

Imagine being born in Okinawa and, while growing up on the island, wondering what it might be like to travel to a different country, experience different cultures and foods and learn to speak a foreign language. Now imagine wanting to do all these things, but wondering how on earth you’ll be able to afford the airfare, let alone the costs of staying and eating in another country. As exciting as this adventure sounds, the whole prospect is so daunting that you don’t seriously think it will ever happen.

Then, one day, you come across a flyer at your school advertising a program in which you can spend a whole weekend with a foreign family, right here in Okinawa. Even better, if you are unable to afford the standard fees, there is a program, funded partially through corporate and personal donations and partially by the government, through which you can apply for subsidies. You might even qualify to participate at no cost to your family! You learn this program is called the HelloWorld Cultural Exchange Program (formerly Machinaka Ryugaku Program) and, unable to believe your eyes, you run home to tell your parents. After making some calls, they give you the green light and let you sign up for an overseas study experience you can enjoy right here on the island.

Imagine how happy you’d be, how much fun you’d have in the program, and how much appreciation you’d feel for the hard work and vision of the entrepreneurs who established the company that made it all possible, and how much gratitude you’d have for the donors who made your stay possible.

HelloWorld Cultural Exchange Program Vision

The name ‘HelloWorld Cultural Exchange Program’ is the renewed English translation of the company’s original program widely known in Japanese as ‘Machinaka Ryugaku.’ The words ‘Machinaka Ryugaku,’ written まちなか留学 in Japanese characters, translate loosely as ‘study abroad right here in town.’ The original name was chosen to reflect the aim of the program, which is to provide opportunities for Okinawan students to benefit from the kind of experiences they would enjoy studying overseas, without the expenses or difficulties associated with foreign travel. The company chose to switch the name to ‘HelloWorld Cultural Exchange Program’ so that it would better resonate with foreign host families.

Inspiration for the program arose from seeing an opportunity to build mutually beneficial connections between Okinawan students and the foreign community. Japanese society tends to be fairly inward-looking and, at least in Okinawa, quite tightly knit. While sharing a common culture has many virtues, we think that most young people in Okinawa at some point yearn to study or travel abroad. Unfortunately, the reality is that many people have no choice but to give up on this dream for reasons such as lack of money or time, or even their age.

In addition, there is also the reality that there are many foreign residents in Japan who struggle to integrate into the broader Okinawan community and end up being isolated. With the goal of “building a society in which it is natural to have friends in every country,” Hello World set out to develop a program that had the potential to unite these two groups in the bonds of international and intercultural friendship.

HelloWorld homsestay students enjoying activities with the host family.

Affordable Education Opportunities in Japan’s Poorest Prefecture

Of all the prefectures in Japan, Okinawa is the poorest. Family incomes are lower than on the mainland and the cost of food, transportation and living space is relatively high owing both to the constant influx of Japanese migrants to the island and the high levels of international and Japanese tourism. Many parents who struggle to meet their daily needs would be unable to manage the costs associated with sending their kids on a local homestay adventure, even if it’s just for a weekend or only a single night.

Cooking with the host family
Meeting the students

To assist such families with the costs of participation in cultural exchange programs, the Machinaka Fund was established by HelloWorld and its partners to provide free international exchange opportunities thanks to the donations of companies, other organizations and even the very families that host the students. The international exchange experiences gained by students can broaden their views, give them opportunities to reflect on themselves and encourage them to dream bigger, setting more ambitious goals for their future.

In keeping with the UN’s 4th Sustainable Development Goal, which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” HelloWorld believes that all children should be able to experience different cultures and have the chance to learn English through interacting with people from different countries. As HelloWorld moves together with its local and international partners, the company aims to offer high-quality experiences and make intercultural exchange a reality for kids in a world where it is natural to have “a friend from each country”.

Challenges of Developing an International Exchange Infrastructure in Okinawa

Okinawa is not an easy place to recruit families willing and able to participate in the homestay programs which are the core of the HelloWorld Cultural Exchange Program. Families who wish to participate need to meet specific criteria and one of the most common barriers is simply lack of space in families’ homes. Houses and apartments in Okinawa tend to be very small and not all families who are keen to participate have the extra living space required to accommodate two, three or four kids overnight in their homes.

Saying goodbye at the closing ceremonies

Another formidable challenge with respect to running the program is matching participating students with one another and with the right host families. Many Machinaka Ryugaku students live in different parts of the island and attend different schools. Some are from remote areas on the main island like Kunigami, while some are even from distant islands like Kumejima, Miyakojima or Ishigakijima. Students, which are gender-segregated for the homestay program need to be matched first of all by age, and second by English language ability. There are also issues like pet allergies, which require HelloWorld staff to be particularly diligent about which students they match with which families.

Because of these logistical challenges, HelloWorld must work extra hard to recruit enough families to accommodate the increasing number of students who sign up for the Machinaka Ryugaku program, keeping in mind that there will always be last-minute cancellations due to illness, car breakdowns, or even US short-notice military deployments that call away either the host father or host mother. HelloWorld staff are required to be always on their toes, ready to accommodate last-minute changes, and able to respond to the many unexpected issues that arise.

The Visionary Entrepreneurs behind the Machinaka Ryugaku Program

Co-CEOs Hikari Nonaka and Keisuke Tomida are the driving force behind HelloWorld and the Machinaka Ryugaku program. While enrolled in Ryukyu University’s Pedagogy Department, a seed that would later germinate was planted in Nonaka’s mind when experienced a Cultural Exchange that brought him to travel to 8 Asian countries. After working in a Tokyo Consulting Company, and later in Miyagi building an earthquake assistance program, he returned to Okinawa to head Startup Lab Lagoon Koza, a hub to develop entrepreneurial talent on the island. During his tenure there he helped over 60 people every year successfully launch their own businesses. In addition, he also ran projects to support the government’s education and business programs. He brought this formidable business experience to HelloWorld.

Co-CEOs Hikari Nonaka and Keisuke Tomida

Keisuke Tomida, who was born in Mie prefecture, graduated Keio University School of Law in 2011, with the intention to became a corporate lawyer. In 2018, growing tired of the legal world, he became a Senior Visiting Fellow at California’s Berkeley University. With the learning and experience gathered in Silicon Valley, Tomida resigned his law practice and launched an international exchange application. In 2020 he returned to Japan due to the Covid-19 pandemic and co-founded HelloWorld with Nonaka.

Nonaka and Tomida both believe that the Machinaka Ryugaku program isn’t simply a ‘service,’ but rather an integral part of the island’s infrastructure which can help Okinawa meet the challenges of its increasingly international character.

HelloWorld’s International and Bilingual Staff

One of the greatest strengths of HelloWorld is the presence of staff members from all over the world, striving each day to provide the children with unique experiences and opportunities. The Host Team that communicates with the host families every day is comprised of people who are fully bilingual and able to communicate equally well with the English speaking homestay families and the Japanese students, parents and sometimes teachers. All Japanese staff are hired in part because they have spent time abroad and personally experienced the benefits and challenges of being immersed in foreign cultures.

For members such as Akira from Argentina and Giulia from Italy, HelloWorld represents a company that has welcomed them despite the challenges of integrating into a Japanese work environment and makes them feel at home despite being far from their countries of birth. No matter the cultural differences, every member of HelloWorld strives day by day to build a society in which diversity is seen as a precious resource rather than an obstacle.

HelloWorld employs staff from all over the world!

What Participants Say about the Cultural Exchange Program

The feedback Hello World collects from Okinawan homestay students and their families makes clear that the program is achieving its goals. One student wrote “I enjoyed sightseeing, cooking and playing games together, as well as just having conversations. I realized that I could improve not only my listening skills, but also my speaking skills too, but conversing actively with people from different countries. I would like to participate in a program like this again, and I would also like to speak to foreign people on my own.”

While language exchange is certainly the focus, many parents are happy to see their children gain confidence in dealing with foreign people. In the words of one mother, “I am not sure if my son’s English ability grew too much, but the opportunity to talk happily with foreign people without feeling hesitant, and to want to communicate with them, is a thing that satisfied us a lot as parents.”

What the Future Holds for HelloWorld

As an emergent start-up in Okinawa, the goal is to expand this vision throughout Japan and to the world. HelloWorld already has an office in Tokyo and is expanding its programs to other parts of the country. HelloWorld aims to become a global company that runs a platform with multiple cultures coexisting while creating a model for international exchange and English Education in Japan.

Recruiting Now!

Are you an English-speaking family interested in getting well paid to open your home to students from Okinawa and mainland Japan? Contact HelloWorld to learn how you can get involved. 

Editor’s Note:
No compensation or remuneration was received by Okinawa Heartbeat for the publication of this article.

HelloWorld

HelloWorld Okinawa Office
1 Chome-7-8 Central, Okinawa, 904-0004
HelloWorld Website

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