Less than a week after a group of Japanese art students arrived at the University of the Arts for an exchange program, their home country was devastated by one of the worst natural disasters in its history.

The cross-cultural experience took on added significance.

The point of the exchange program was to create artistic works that bridge language and cultural differences. One installation piece uses sound, video, dance, sculpture and string to literally tie together a Happy Meal on one side of the room with a bento box on the other.

A dancer weaves through that web of cultural symbols with movements that are half Japanese and half African-American.

"When I would move like an American I would choose very sharp and jagged and rude movement," said Kianna Moye, an American student at UArts. "And when I was a Japanese person, embodying how they experience things, it was much more flow-y, quiet beautiful movement."

Each of the 15 Japanese students also became the houseguest of their American counterparts, sleeping on the couches, futons, and daybeds of their collaborators. That can be a challenge when there is no common language.

Olivia Diehl, a sculptor at UArts, used online Google Translator to communicate, with disastrous results. She would use the automated language translator to tell her new roommate, "'I'm going to get groceries, and I want to know what kind of food you like.' And don't remember what it said, but it came out so rude."

The Japanese and American students learned to communicate more effectively by creating art together. That communication was a critical source of support when the students’ home country experienced the triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident.

"We've been on this student exchange for only 10 days," said Ryo Kozuki, a sculptor from Kinki University in Osaka, through an interpreter. "But understanding they are so worried for us was very valuable for me and I felt closer to my host...and friend."

All the students came from Kinki, in the southern part of Japan--an area not directly impacted by the disaster. They will return home in five days. Their work will remain on display at the University of the Arts for two weeks.