North Texas entertains visitors from Japan as part of cultural exchange

Baseball, barbecue and boot-scootin' -- 160 Japanese visitors spent the past week getting a taste of the Lone Star State at popular attractions throughout North Texas.

Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and 12 other area cities hosted the visitors from Tuesday to today as part of the 22nd annual Japan-America Grassroots Summit. The gathering of American and Japanese citizens, held alternately in Japan and the United States, aims to strengthen relations between the countries by fostering friendships at a grassroots level, organizers say.

Participants, who stayed with host families part of the week, toured downtown Fort Worth and the Dallas Arts District, visited museums, watched a cattle drive, danced at Billy Bob's Texas and attended a baseball game at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, among other activities.

"The intention is to develop some long-lasting friendships. One of the ways you start to do that is by exposing one another to each other's culture," said John Stich, who is both summit co-chairman and the honorary consul general of Japan at Dallas. "They will see everything from oil wells and wind farms to actually participating on a cattle ranch with horseback lessons. They get the different flavors of Texas."

Little League team

Arlington hosted members of the Ishinomaki Senior Little League baseball team, whose members are from the Tohoku region of Japan, which was struck hard by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

The Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation, Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish and gloops Inc., an official corporate partner of the Rangers, sponsored the team's visit.

Mayor Robert Cluck welcomed the visitors, who also toured Cowboys Stadium and played a few friendly ballgames against area youth baseball players at Randol Mill Park, at a ceremony at City Hall on Thursday. Cluck, with the help of a translator, talked baseball and the importance of cultural exchange with the teenagers after declaring Japan Week in Arlington.

"It's very invigorating for me to be here to experience this," Cluck said. "We really welcome all Japanese here. We are so proud of Yu Darvish and our team."

On Tuesday, the Ishinomaki baseball team and other Japanese visitors had a chance to meet Rangers players, tour the stadium and participate in batting practice during Japan America Friendship Night at the ballpark, organized by the baseball team and several local Japanese organizations.

They also got to see Darvish pitch, and win, a game against Tampa Bay.

"Obviously Yu Darvish has become sort of a hero to them," said Karin Morris, Rangers vice president of community outreach. "It became important for us to give those kids the All-American experience of a major-league baseball game while they are here."

Kaito Suganomata, a 15-year-old pitcher from Ishinomaki, said his favorite experiences in Texas included eating hamburgers and standing on the Rangers' mound.

"He was so excited to pitch the same mound as Yu Darvish," a translator said for Suganomata.

English is taught in the Japanese schools, but translators also traveled with the visitors, organizers said.

"Baseball is definitely a universal language," Morris said. "When we asked, 'Do you want to play catch on the field?' they all grabbed their gloves."

Summit history

A friendship struck up more than 170 years ago inspired creation of the summit, organizers say.

John Manjiro Nakahama, a 14-year-old fisherman, was shipwrecked and then rescued by Capt. William H. Whitfield in 1841. The young fisherman, befriended by the whaler, was educated in America and later returned to Japan to become a key figure in early Japan-U.S. relations, according to the summit's website. The two families have stayed in touch all these years.

North Texas won the bid to host the summit for the first time last year, Stich said. The event, paid for by sponsors, was organized by the Japan-America Society of Dallas/Fort Worth and the John Manjiro Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange in Japan and the U.S.


Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock