The 2002 FIFA World Cup, which comes to a close Sunday, offered local municipalities throughout Japan an opportunity to hold various exchange programs with visitors from in and out of the country during the one-month event.

Although Tokyo did not host any of the World Cup matches, an organization in the city’s Itabashi Ward did host a number of visitors. The Itabashi Culture and International Exchange Foundation, an affiliate of the ward office, set up 14 foreign visitors with home stays with local families. As it is a volunteer program, visitors did not have to pay for room and board.

“We think the home-stay program has been successful and are very glad that many local families applied to become host families, despite initial media reports that hooligans were coming,” said Kenji Suzuki, director of the international exchange section at the ward office.

A total of 23 families were registered as host families for foreign visitors to the World Cup, according to Suzuki.

The visitors, who applied for the program over the Internet, stayed with their host families for up to four days.

“Although we could not afford to entertain visitors much, especially with the current fiscal difficulties, we believe home stays are the best way for foreigners to truly understand Japan,” Suzuki said.

The ward office has some 100 families registered as host families as part of its regular effort to promote international friendship at the grassroots level, he added.

Local resident Hiroko Katagiri said she appreciates such efforts on the part of the local government.

She and her husband, Chiaki, received Phongtorn Phongluantum, 45, from the Chicago suburb of Evanston from Thursday through Saturday.

“I have always been interested in hosting guests from abroad, since I stayed with a Canadian family in Burlington (Ontario) for two weeks in 1999 as part of an exchange program,” Katagiri said.

She cherished the kind hospitality of her host mother and other family members and the memory of encountering locals in everyday life in Burlington, Itabashi’s sister city.

On Thursday night, the Katagiris, together with Hiroko’s mother and sister, entertained Phongluantum with sukiyaki and wine.

“When I first saw the leaflet about the World Cup home-stay program, I thought it was great and the best way to understand Japanese families,” Phongluantum said.

Like 13 others on the program, who have come from countries that include Britain, China, Canada and South Korea, Phongluantum is enjoying his experience of everyday life in Itabashi, walking around the neighborhood and going shopping.

“Today, Hiroko drove me around and showed me the streets, department stores, supermarkets. But that would be very difficult for me to do as a tourist,” said Phongluantum, who works at a museum and plays soccer at home.

“I think this World Cup shows fans all over the world what good fans should be — enthusiastic, orderly, well-behaved and all that,” he said. He watched Wednesday’s match between Brazil and Turkey in Saitama.

“It is the key to cross-cultural understanding — different languages but one medium of understanding.”

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