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Racine’s Japanese sister city OK -- Former exchange students keep Racine families updated

Racine’s Japanese sister city OK -- Former exchange students keep Racine families updated


RACINE - Stephanie Brunner's first thoughts when she heard about Japan's devastating earthquake were about 18-year-old Yusuke Aiba.

He first stayed with her family through Racine's sister city program in 2007 and returned again last summer. During his two visits to Racine he became like family, Brunner said, almost tearing up.

"My reaction ... It was panic. I wanted to make sure he was OK," said Brunner, 48, of Caledonia who works at the Racine Public Library.

Luckily for Aiba, Racine's sister city, Oiso, Japan - which is just south of Tokyo on the eastern coast - is OK, according to reports from Aiba and other students.

Oiso is one of four sister cities in other countries that Racine's Sister City Planning Council has an active relationship with, which includes occasional visits.

Oiso, Japan, is about 260 miles away from Sendai, which took one of the biggest hits from the earthquake. Oiso was definitely shaken, according to e-mails from Oiso received by sister city committee member Keiko Skow.

"We experienced the big shake never experienced before," said one e-mail sent to Skow, who is originally from Japan.

The e-mail continued, they were having telephone problems in Oiso and traffic was shut down for at least one day. So many people stayed at their offices or public education facilities such as universities.

They don't have the same nuclear threats other places have. But officials have asked residents to cut down on their use of electricity because plants are offline and there have been scheduled blackouts.

It's a serious situation for everyone watching, but when you know someone it's even more devastating, said Linda O'Connell, of Racine, who also hosted a student from Oiso along with her husband City Development Director Brian O'Connell.

She was relieved when she received the message from her exchange student, Kazuya Iwamoto, with a short message saying, "My family is safe," followed by a smiley face.

For local families that host Japanese students through the exchange program, which has been operating since 1993, they get only a few weeks with each young person. But for both O'Connell and Brunner it's a connection that has continued beyond the brief stay.

Many of the reports Brunner gets from Aiba are in Japanese, so she can't read them.

But when she sees his tweets on her phone she knows at least he is safe. Then when she gets home she attempts to translate his messages online.

Even though Brunner knows Aiba and others in his town are safe, she is still checking his tweets every few hours and she tweets back making sure he has everything he needs.

"Things are changing so rapidly there," said Brunner. "I just want to keep in touch with him so he knows we are concerned."


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