Republished with permission from Sonoma West Times & News
Thursday, April 7, 2016 by Amie Windsor Sonoma West Staff Writer amie@sonomawest.com

Sebastopol World Friends recently returned home from their trip to Takeo City, Japan in which 18 middle school students, three chaperones and 12 adults from the community visited the town’s sister city to celebrate the 31st year in unity.

“It shows other ways of being in the world,” Sebastopol Councilmember Patrick Slayter, who attended as the city’s liaison, said. “That’s a really important lesson learned only through the exchange.”

The Takeo City Program is a two-year program for seventh and eighth grade students. American and Japanese student ambassadors are paired with one another or matched in small groupings and homestay at each other’s houses for 10 days in spring, experiencing their respective cities, cultures and lifestyles. In the first year, Takeo students visit and stay with Sebastopol families and in the second year, Sebastopol students visit Takeo, which just concluded. The program also offers adult cultural exchange opportunities, by means of hosting visitors and traveling as part of an adult group or chaperone.

Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver was slated for the trip, but couldn’t attend, due to a conference in Palm Springs.

“The Chief asked if anyone else wanted to go and I jumped at the opportunity,” Sebastopol Police Office Jacques Levesque said.

This was Levesque’s first international trip. Levesque is a Sonoma County born-and-raised boy and has been with the police for nine years.

“I was really excited to go,” Levesque said.

He left a day early, allowing for time to visit temples, shrines and castle ruins.

“The countryside is beautiful,” Levesque said.

Of Takeo City, Levesque said the municipality used to be smaller but has grown over the years, due to incorporation. In fact, in 2008, the city of Yamauchi, Japan merged with neighboring towns to form Takeo City. Yamauchi and Sebastopol became Sister Cities in 1985. The police department, which Levesque visited, has grown proportionally to match the city’s expanse, too.

“They have 80 officers to our 14,” Levesque said. “They’re similar to our agency, with different divisions.”

Levesque described the agency as very efficient, with officers showing a lot of respect for one another. He did note something different about their uniforms — while Sebastopol Police vests protect from gunshots, Takeo City Police vests protect from knife attacks, since guns are outlawed.

“There’s a lot less gun violence,” Levesque said. “It’s a very respectful culture there.”

Levesque said he would like to see the Sebastopol community live a little more “in the present moment” like those in Takeo City.

“We’re always on our cell phones. They weren’t so much in to that,” Levesque said. “I love our city, but they’re in the present moment and go out of their way to make sure you’re comfortable and that your needs are met.”

Meeting needs was a quality of the people of Takeo City — and Japan, at large — that Slayter, noticed too.

He relayed a story about a trip to Naga, where the group was taking a break to get some lunch.

“I was waiting in line and a girl came up and was just moved to tears over the customer service she received in a store,” Slayter said. “She could have been buying a pencil for all I know. But seeing how a complete stranger helped her; that really has an impact.”

Slayter said instances like that aren’t often seen here in Sebastopol.

“It’s so important to see other cultures and other ways of being in the world,” Slayter said.

Many Sebastopol students, families and citizens have had unique opportunity to gain rich cultural experiences through the program, according to the Sebastopol World Friends website.

“They have created lifetime friendships bridging the Pacific Ocean and become part of the people to people diplomacy movement,” the website reads.

Slayter experienced that first hand with the host family he stayed with.

After visiting the Nagasaki Museum — a sobering experience for everyone who went — he sat around with his host family, attempting to hold a conversation about the past.

“Those people weren’t responsible for the atrocity committed on the U.S. and I didn’t drop the bomb on them,” Slayter said. “We can move forward rather than stay in the idea of suspicion. It’s the only way that we can forgive and learn.”