Fifty years of Rotary Youth Exchange in Japan
In 1962, Australia was a country grappling with change. Many older Australians were still emotionally rebuilding after World War II, and the nation was beginning to dismantle its anti-Asian “White Australia” immigration policy.
When Yoko Sekimoto arrived in Melbourne that year as Japan’s first Rotary Youth Exchange student, she didn’t realize that many people were wary of her visit. Fifty years later, she continues to marvel at the graciousness of her hosts.
“Everyone treated me like a daughter or sister. It was only 17 years after the war, but I felt a warm welcome and great hospitality,” says Sekimoto (her married name – at the time, she was Yoko Miyazaki).
Japan’s Youth Exchange program began with help from an Australian Rotarian. Don Farquhar addressed the 1961 RI Convention in Tokyo about the need to build friendships and cultural understanding throughout the world – particularly with Japan. He considered student exchange to be the best way to do that.
“Don was a person of both immense courage and foresight,” says Stuart McDonald, program development officer for Youth Exchange in Australia. “In 1942, during World War II, Don was blinded in action against the Japanese. However, he maintained a desire and a mission in life to promote peace and goodwill.”
After Farquhar delivered his speech, he was approached by a Japanese district governor, who asked him to help arrange the first Youth Exchange involving a student from Japan. The Rotary clubs of Rosebud and Kurume coordinated Sekimoto’s year abroad. A few weeks after her arrival, another group of Japanese students came to Sydney, and the next year Japan welcomed several Australian students. The country’s exchange program had officially begun.
Sekimoto’s visit to Australia, along with the beginning of Youth Exchange in Japan, was considered so historically significant that photographs from her exchange are now housed in the National Archives of Australia, McDonald says.
“It was a hard time for Japan when I was 16,” Sekimoto says. “When I came to Australia, it was just like heaven. It was such a different style of living. That became a big turning point for me – it completely changed my life.”
Her experience as an exchange student awakened a curiosity to explore the rest of the world. After returning home to finish high school and college, Sekimoto worked as a flight attendant, married, and lived in Egypt before going back to Japan.
“Yoko’s story is just one great example of Youth Exchange,” McDonald says. “Fifty years later, thousands of friendships have been formed between people from all over the world and Japan.”