For three inner-city Chicago teens, vivid memories of traveling to Japan with their Japanese-born schoolteacher, as part of a program initiated by a former prime minister, was a turning point that forever changed their lives.

Erionna Tucker recalls the two trips she took while attending Langston Hughes Elementary School — a public school whose children range in age from kindergarten to junior high school — as if they were yesterday. She was in the seventh and eighth grades, and Japanese language study at the school was compulsory.

Now the 19-year-old continues language studies at DePauw University in neighboring Indiana, with hopes of one day becoming a Japanese translator.

“I wanted to go to Japan since I was really young, so being able to go for the first time just really changed me,” she told an audience at a recent Japan Information Center panel discussion highlighting programs for young African-Americans.

“It just hit a chord in my heart.”

The alumna recounted how her first visit, in 2010, transported her from the “wild 100s” into another reality — a reference to the rough Southside neighborhood above 100th Street, where such opportunities are rare and violence, including murder, is commonplace.

Awestruck by the Asian sights, sounds and encounters, she was motivated to learn even more after returning home.

As a star pupil, Tucker was selected by her teacher, Mitsuko Rokuhira, as the student representative. It was thanks to Rokuhira, 79, that the school’s Japanese language program took root.

Tucker made speeches in Japanese, including to veteran politician Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa took up the baton from Keizo Obuchi, after the then-prime minister initiated the Langston program in 2000 before his death the same year, and kept it going until 2014.

Called the “Dream Project for the 21st Century,” some 260 Langston students have benefited from the program since the first group came to Japan in June 2001.

For Chante Wilborn, the cultural exposure left a deep impression. New school rules, like removing her shoes before stepping indoors, as well as breaking through language barriers made her “more open to different cultures.”

“Going to Japan at a young age made me aware that people are different from me. And it gave me a preview of what the world is really like, because when I was young I thought it was only Chicago, Illinois,” the 18-year-old said. “Now I see the world.”

Now she has her sights set on learning another language and possibly living overseas after she starts college.

Donald Walker, who went to Japan in the seventh grade and said he had no preconceived notions about his Japanese peers, gained confidence through the program. The university-bound high school graduate dreams of becoming a lawyer one day.

“We are just people so it was not a race thing, it was not an ideology thing, (either),” he said.

While the three have remained close despite taking different paths, their panel participation brought them together again in hopes of inspiring a new generation of Japanese language studies.

Through it all, Rokuhira was their rock, they said. For two decades from 1994 until 2014, the Toyama native fueled the student body with creativity.

Hauling suitcases full of Japanese artifacts around the halls, she brought her country and culture into the classrooms with great enthusiasm. She put in thousands of hours preparing students for the annual Japan Day, as well as leading science fair projects, putting on puppet shows, and teaching kids how to drum and sing.

Her students were standouts over the years. They took the grand prize three times for a haiku contest, and received top accolades in the Illinois Japanese Speech Contest.

Rokuhira, however, said the highlights of her career were the annual Japan trips, which took three months’s preparation to get the students up to speed.

“The value of taking students to Japan is tremendous, especially at the elementary school age; the experiences would be photographic,” Rokuhira explained, adding that the memories last a lifetime.

She also observed how returning students readily shared experiences with their classmates, coached them on manners and corrected their language. Through language and culture, her students, she said, learned a “Japanese style of discipline.”

For Tucker, Rokuhira’s most notable influence was instilling in Tucker a love of the language. For Walker she was like “a second mother,” especially after she helped him stay on track after he went through a rough patch in life.

Efforts are now underway to restart the travel program with Xian Barrett, 39, the school’s new Japanese language teacher, who started the Japanese language program anew following a temporary suspension after Rokuhira’s retirement. He pointed out the importance of cross-cultural exchanges.

“I am very proud that the youth will bring their own culture to the classroom, and learn and combine it with what they have so everyone changes a little bit,” said Barrett, who spent time studying in Japan. “They take great ideas they learn from Japan, but they also share back their own culture, which is beautiful and strong.”

According to U.S. media, there were more than 7,900 murders in Chicago from 2001 to September last year — more than the death toll of the U.S. military amid wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For students facing a host of challenges — from the socioeconomic to overcoming community violence and striving for equal opportunities — the chance to immerse themselves in Japanese language and culture opens new doors.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Haelie Cannon, who recently graduated from eighth grade after studying under Rokuhira and Barrett. But the 15-year-old worries about others who might not get the chance.

“They (students) wouldn’t be able to get the opportunity again unless there is a program again. It would be really amazing if they were to see Japan” with their own eyes, Cannon said.

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