Kevin Riordan: Retired teacher runs Haddonfield exchange with Japan

Bill Brown talks with rising senior Jessica Blau, 17, joined by Kuzuya Emoi (right) and Yayoi Yausada, chaperones from the Kasukabe Girls Senior High School in Japan. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Bill Brown talks with rising senior Jessica Blau, 17, joined by Kuzuya Emoi (right) and Yayoi Yausada, chaperones from the Kasukabe Girls Senior High School in Japan. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer) (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 07, 2013

Haddonfield resident Bill Brown arranged his first trans-Pacific expedition for students in 1977.

On and off in the years since, hundreds of Philadelphia and South Jersey youngsters have spent two or three weeks with families in Japan - and hundreds of young Japanese have experienced American hospitality.

"Certainly, Japanese culture is different," says Brown, 80, who has three children and three grandchildren. "But the family lifestyle is basically the same."

Promoting international understanding is a labor of love for the retired teacher, whose Haddonfield Japan Exchange brought 17 Kasukabe Girls Senior High School students to the borough July 27.

The visitors, whose itinerary has included the Shore, the Cowtown Rodeo, and Cherry Hill Mall, are set to return to Kasukabe on Thursday. The city near Tokyo has about 200,000 residents.

"We want to expose the students to as much American culture as possible," says Brown, who has been to Japan 14 times, most recently in 2008. He established the Haddonfield program in 2006 after retiring from teaching at Philadelphia's Roxborough High.

"I have been treated so well in Japan - people there opened their doors and opened their hearts - that I want kids to share that experience," says Brown. He likens his first Japan trip, in 1991, to "walking onto the set" of a movie.

"It's something you can't get from a textbook," he says. "Or in a classroom."

The happy cacophony of young voices at Haddonfield Memorial High School on a recent rainy morning suggests the learning experience is going well.

Indeed, so animated are the discussions and so hearty the laughter - despite the limited English and even less robust Japanese among the nonnative speakers - that I'm tempted to tout exchange programs to, say, Republicans and Democrats.

"It's a great experience," declares Peter Blau, a Westmont businessman whose family is hosting Kanako Hashimoto.

"It's like traveling without going to another country," Blau's daughter Jessica, 17, says. Soon to be a Haddonfield senior, she has hit it off with Hashimoto despite the language barrier.

"Both sides try very, very hard to [understand] each other," Peter Blau notes. "To watch the kids develop a relationship and struggle to learn is a great thing."

Turns out that charades can be great fun in both cultures, says Cassidy Hilburn, 15, who hosted a party for the group at which the pantomime game figured prominently.

"I never expected to make friends from the other side of the world," adds Hilburn, whose family is hosting Kiyozaki Nozumi.

"The kids are having a blast together," host parent Deenie Adler says, adding that her guest, Satomi Sekii, "became a part of our household within three days."

"American supermarkets are so big," Sekii, 17, says.

"Many things are totally different," agrees Miyu Takano, 15.

Including taste in pop music. Japanese girls are more likely to be listening to the boy band Arashi than to Taylor Swift.

Haddonfield Japan operates on $11,000 a year, which Brown raises privately (Subaru of America is a major benefactor). Students from both countries pay for airfare only.

"I'm working harder now than when I was working," laughs Brown, who is still a licensed real estate agent. Without a core group of about five supporters, he adds, he couldn't do what he does.

Which he would like to do as long as possible, bad knees and stiff joints permitting.

So will he return to Kasukabe next year?

"If I get any younger," Brown says with a wink, "I might."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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