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Akira Sakai hugs his former exchange host Mary Dowling during a visit to The Wyoming Room at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library on Thursday. The Sheridan Press | Justin SheelyAkira Sakai hugs his former exchange host Mary Dowling during a visit to The Wyoming Room at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library on Thursday. The Sheridan Press | Justin Sheely

Former exchange students return to Sheridan

SHERIDAN — Akira Sakai, a Japanese resident who first visited Sheridan 40 years ago, was in town Thursday to see old friends and visit Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library to see the results of a large donation he made to the library two years ago.

Sakai first visited Sheridan as an exchange student in 1973. Along with more than a dozen other Japanese students, he came as a part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by a local Lions Club. He lived for two weeks with Bill and Joyce Laya.

That first visit made a huge impact on Sakai, and he has remained friends with the Layas and interested in Sheridan and Western culture ever since.

“He’s very into international relationships and about people learning from other people,” Joyce Laya said.

Laya said Sakai strongly supports encouraging people to seek understanding of other cultures through exchange programs. She said Sakai is particularly proud of her daughter, who lives in Brazil, and has lived internationally off and on since high school graduation and credits his visit for inspiring her.

“He is very proud of her because he feels he was instrumental for this 5-year-old to grow up and be an internationalist,” Laya said.

Sakai now resides in Kimitsu City in the Chiba Prefecture in Japan. This is his fifth trip to Sheridan. He came once with his wife and daughters, and for this visit, he was accompanied by Mikiro Hayashi and his wife Yayoi. Mikiro Hayashi was also one of the 1973 exchange students.

“Everyone in Sheridan always welcomes me with warm hearts,” Sakai said. “I’m very happy because Sheridan people are very kind to me.”

To show his appreciation for his experience in Sheridan, Sakai donated $6,000 to the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library in 2011, which allowed the library to purchase 350 items. The money was used to purchase books by and about Ernest Hemingway, Japanese language books and tapes, books about cultural exchange programs and fiction and nonfiction books about Japanese-American relations.

Sakai is an author himself, having written several books and authored a memoir, “Going Back to Sheridan,” that he donated to the library. During his visit, he delighted in pointing out photographs in the book of Ranchester, the ranch were he stayed with the Layas, the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, downtown Sheridan and the Tongue River Canyon.

Several of his books — including biological books about sea life and trees in Japan, a historical biography and a book of poetry with a cover made of a Japanese kimono — were also on display with the books the library purchased with his donation.

“Ever since I was young, I have always enjoyed going to libraries and reading,” Sakai said in his memoir. “Naturally, almost every time I came back to Sheridan, I enjoyed going to Sheridan County Library.”

Library Director Cameron Duff said Sakai wanted the library to use his donation to complete its Hemingway collection and buy other books that are true classics.

“He really wanted some Hemingway books and after that he said ‘anything you want’ so we got travel books, some historical books, we were just able to do a wide range across the whole library. It definitely filled in some gaps that we wouldn’t normally be able to fill in and that was exciting for us,” Duff said.

“It was great we were able to honor him two years ago and we appreciate his visit again now,” Duff added. “He definitely loves the Sheridan area and has a love for Hemingway. He is a very amazing individual and very humble but is a huge fan of Sheridan and we always welcome his visits here at the library.”

Sakai said he has always liked Hemingway’s books and was impressed when he found out that Hemingway visited Sheridan and the Bighorn Mountains.

Hayashi also spoke to friends gathered in the Wyoming Room at the library Thursday.

“I’m very glad to visit this library and see all of you,” Hayashi said. “I’m glad to visit Sheridan for the first time in 40 years. When I visited 40 years ago, I had so many good experiences.”

Hayashi particularly noted a visit to Yellowstone National Park and a picnic in the Bighorn Mountains.

“I hope to tell nice memories of this trip to other people in Japan,” Hayashi said.

Sakai echoed those sentiments in his remarks: “I hope everyone will continue to do well and will sometime visit Japan.”

By Christina Schmidt and Hannah Wiest

 

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