Portsmouth-Nichinan Exchange Program Fosters Unbreakable Bonds

Students from Nichinan Gakuen Jr-Sr High School at the Portsmouth High School Japan Assembly

Hannah Rubin, PaperClip Staff/Writer

In 1905, Russian and Japanese officials met in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to participate in an important peace negotiation that would ultimately end the Russo-Japanese War. With the help of Portsmouth citizen diplomacy, the Japanese and Russian delegations were able to come to an agreement and signed what would later be known as the Portsmouth Peace Treaty.

In 1985, the Japanese city of Nichinan, birthplace to Japanese lead diplomat Baron Komura, sent cherry trees to Portsmouth to show Japan’s gratitude. In the same year, the two cities became sister cities.

Twelve years later, Portsmouth High School and Nichinan Gakuen Jr-Sr High School became sister schools and an exchange program was established.

Each fall, a group of about twenty Japanese students travels to America. In addition to staying with Portsmouth host families for five days, the group travels to Washington DC, Boston, and New York City. 

In the spring, about fifteen Portsmouth High School students visit Nichinan for five days- staying with Nichinan host families before continuing on to visit Kyoto and Tokyo.

“At the end of the trip there is a consensus with all the students that the homestay is the favorite part of the trip,” said Ms. Laura LaVallee, an English teacher at Portsmouth High School and the faculty coordinator for the American side of the exchange program. 

“There is something really magical that happens in such a short time; there are things that cross those cultural boundaries,” Ms. LaVallee added. “There is a language barrier for sure, but humans are humans, and the Japanese families take in PHS kids and treat them as their own. A lot of our kids don’t expect that- the warmth and kindness that they receive from the Nichinan families.”

Ms. LaVallee noted that logistics are a challenging aspect of the exchange program. “There’s a lot that goes into planning a trip to the other side of the world and because it’s such a culture shock when we go over there, it’s important for students to know certain things.” 

Despite the challenges of coordinating such a large trip, Ms. LaVallee highlighted how valuable the experience is for all those involved. “When we go see different places, I’m not looking at the Tokyo Tower or the shrines, I’m looking at the faces of the students, because it’s just so rewarding to see their reactions to everything. What’s most rewarding is the relationships that are made. There are kids that have hosted or gone on the trip and are still in contact, years and years later, with their host family.”

The Japanese students receive a warm welcome from their host families upon their arrival in Portsmouth. The five days of the homestay are spent showing the Japanese students all over the seacoast of New Hampshire and taking part in traditional New England fall activities such as apple picking, pumpkin smashing, and hayrides.

Minori Takeda, a student from Nichinan who visited Portsmouth this October, enjoyed her visit. “It was a very good experience,” she said. “By deepening the cultural exchange and bonds, I was able to practice my communication because I wanted to be able to speak more.” (translated)

“I like the atmosphere of Portsmouth,” said Sakura, another Japanese student who visited Portsmouth. “I think that Portsmouth is very beautiful. Until now, I thought America was a scary place. But now it’s my favorite place.”

Portsmouth High School students who have hosted Nichinan students in the past reflect positively on their experiences.

 “It was an excellent feeling.” PHS graduate Stefan Langer (class of 2019) said. “I got to show someone else I didn’t know a whole new area, culture, and a different lifestyle, while making a friend in the process.” Langer visited Japan in April of 2018 and enjoyed his experience immensely.

Isabel Wohlert, a junior at Portsmouth High School, had similar feelings regarding the exchange program. “Both times I hosted were fantastic experiences. It was like having a new family member instantly. You realize that even though you come from completely different places, you really aren’t that different.”

“It makes them aware that they are global citizens,” Ms. LaVallee said. “I think sometimes we get really fixated on being from a certain city, or state or country, and having this experience of traveling to a place like Japan, students can see that despite the language barrier and despite the cultural differences, we are all just people and want certain things in our lives. We all want to be happy and healthy, we all want to be safe and loved, and those things are very universal.”

Indeed, the Portsmouth-Nichinan exchange program has positively impacted students in both America and Japan. Through an exchange of language and culture, students from opposite sides of the world have come together to forge unbreakable bonds.


If you’re interested in being a host student or traveling to Japan, talk to Ms. LaVallee in room 205.


Hannah Rubin
Japanese students and American host students at the Portsmouth Halloween Parade
Hannah Rubin
Students from Nichinan Gakuen Jr-Sr High School at the Portsmouth High School Japan Assembly
Hannah Rubin
Japanese students and host families go on a hay ride at Applecrest Farm Orchards.
Hannah Rubin
Japanese students and host families at Applecrest Farm Orchards