COLUMBIA - Before they began taking Japanese in school, Brent Head and Jacob Abbott tried to write the language themselves. Fans of anime, a type of Japanese cartoon, the boys copied the hiragana characters as best they could — not knowing what they meant but utterly captivated by their mystery.
In July, the boys will join a dozen other students from Oakland, Jefferson and West junior high schools for a 15-day trip to Japan. The biennial youth exchange is part of Columbia’s sister city program with Hakusan City in central Japan.
Brent and Jacob, both eighth- graders at West, became acquainted with Japanese language and culture through manga comic books and anime. This interest influenced their decision to enroll in Yoko Smith’s Japanese course at West.
“Some of the cartoons are really funny, but most have a lot of action,” Jacob said. “Anime and manga are a lot more interesting than American comics.”
The popular Japanese style of television cartoons is based on still manga illustrations, which first gained American prominence in the 1960s with “Astro Boy” and was rekindled in the 1990s when Pokémon mania swept the Western world.
Among the boys’ favorite “Japanimation” characters are the futuristic bounty hunters on “Cowboy Bebop” and Bleach, a high school action hero who can see ghosts.
Smith recognized the students’ preference for comics while planning her introductory Japanese classes.
“I chose this textbook because it has comics in it and the kids love the pictures,” she said. “If you’re taking Japanese for credit, you’re in the wrong place. You must want to learn.”
Abby Staysa is a freshman studying Japanese at West who will go on the trip this summer. She is excited to travel to Japan but doesn’t understand the hype surrounding these foreign cartoons.
“A lot of people who watch anime take this class,” Abby said. “People who take Japanese are ... different.”
Tentatively, the trip will cost up to $3,000 per person. Brent has already earned $200 for the trip.
“I’ve been saving up most of my allowance to put in a little envelope that I keep toward Japan, and I’ve also been washing cars at my dad’s dealership,” he said.
Martha Head, Brent’s mother, is proud of her son’s initiative.
“We set a dollar amount and asked him to achieve that goal so that he has more of a buy-in and realizes that this is a big trip,” she explained. His parents plan to pay the remaining balance.
Jacob’s mother, Nita Abbott, has rationalized the price tag by acknowledging the opportunity this experience could provide for her son.
“I think it’s a pretty reasonable trip cost-wise considering all they get to do when they’re there,” she said.
Although the itinerary hasn’t been finalized, the exchange students might tour Tokyo, Okinawa, Hiroshima or Kyoto and will stay with a Japanese host family while in Hakusan City.
“With the home stay, you can see the real Japan,” Smith said. “It’s not like a tour. You must understand what is going on and what the people are saying.”
Each Columbia student participating in this year’s exchange hosted one or more Japanese students last summer, but not all of the Columbia students are enrolled in a Japanese language course.
Jacob understands how important knowing a few Japanese phrases will be from his time with Satoru Hirasaki, the student who joined the Abbott family last summer.
“When he was here, I was the translator for the whole week,” Jacob said. “My dad would be like, ‘Tell this to him,’ and I did. I don’t know if he understood me, but he followed me.”
Nita Abbott hopes the Hirasakis welcome Jacob to their home in the same way her family welcomed Satoru.
“I was pretty apprehensive about how the boys would get along,” she said, “but when he got here, it was just amazing to see how they connected.”
Along with the language course, Smith will arrange several meetings this semester to introduce American students to Japanese customs, currency and culture.
“I talk about the Japanese vertical relationship a lot,” Smith said. “Moral respect is very strong in Japan. When speaking to the elderly people, you have to use a polite form of the language.”
Smith encourages students to learn Japanese culture through West’s Yujo Club, “yujo” meaning “friendship” in Japanese. The club meets every month to learn Japanese calligraphy, watch anime films and partake in tea ceremonies, among other traditions.
Despite these preparations, Brent and Jacob’s mothers still hold a few reservations about the trip. Along with homesickness and culture shock, Nita Abbott worries that Jacob may lack the ability to communicate effectively in a foreign tongue.
They are also apprehensive about how the boys will keep in touch with their families. Abbott recalls how difficult the experience was for Satoru.
“Satoru did make one phone call home, but we got confused by time differences, so he ended up calling his parents in the middle of the night.”
Making mistakes of this nature are part of the learning process, Smith said, and she hopes this summer’s participants are enthusiastic about enriching their perspectives.
“Students in Columbia need to broaden their horizon to global diversity,” she said. “They need to know that there are other cultures out there.”