COLUMBIA — Jitensha. Tomodachi. Gakko. Bicycle. Friend. School.
In a classroom nestled within Rock Bridge High School, Junko Oba's students carefully practice their new vocabulary words. The 11 students are starting a new unit in Oba's second-year Japanese class. Japanese was first offered in Jefferson Junior High School, West Junior High School and Hickman High School in 1990 and expanded to Rock Bridge in 1993, said Bob Brady, the foreign language coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.
Brady said the close proximity of the original three schools was probably the reason for starting the program there because the first Japanese teacher often biked to each school. Brady said 125 students on average enroll in Japanese each year. Since the program's inception in 1990, about 2,250 have enrolled in Japanese.
The idea to add Japanese to the foreign language curriculum emerged from Columbia's first sister-city partnership with Matto City, Japan, now known as Hakusan City, in 1988. During the summer, students from Japan and Columbia participate in an exchange program.
Rock Bridge sophomore Abby Staysa was one of the students who traveled to Japan last summer. She said her favorite part was staying with a host family and seeing the differences between the cultures. She noted how the family said certain greetings and salutations whenever they left the house, came home and went to bed.
She hopes to spend a year at a Japanese high school next year through a Rotary Club scholarship.
"Originally I took a year of French, but I wasn't very good at it," said Staysa, who is in her third year studying Japanese. "(I chose Japanese because) I wanted a new start. I figured it would be useful in business for the future."
Hickman seniors and fourth-year Japanese students Marisah Garcia, who is also applying for the same Rotary Club scholarship, and Shae Grisham tried Spanish and German before enrolling in Japanese at West. They were beginning to lose interest in those languages when they discovered anime: Japanese animation.
In addition to anime, Garcia and Grisham became interested in several aspects of Japanese culture such as respecting one's elders and lolita and harajuku (styles of Japanese fashion), and they switched to Japanese.
"I fell in love with the language and culture," Grisham said. "It's not a traditional language. My friends are like, 'Wow, that's really cool.' It makes me stand out."
Yoko Smith, a Japanese teacher at Hickman, and Oba both cite the popularity of anime as a strong reason why many students initially enroll in their classes. At Hickman, students can even join an anime club.
But apart from anime, Oba thinks there are three types of students who take Japanese. The first type doesn't want to take a foreign language that everyone else is taking, such as Spanish. The second type are career-oriented and see the practical benefits of learning the language. The third type are simply attracted to other cultures.
The students learn a little of everything in their classes, including sumo wrestling, sushi rolling, history and religion. And since Japan's cultural values and beliefs are based on Buddhism and Confucianism, the same religion and philosophy practiced in China and Korea, Oba said students are learning about those cultures as well.
Students don't have to take Japanese to get a worldly education. Brady, who teaches German at Hickman, said it is pretty clear how culturally, politically and economically interconnected the world is today.
"The financial crisis of the last several weeks reminds us that no one is isolated," he said. "Iceland's economy melted because of the U.S. economy."
Brady said people will be needed in the future to function in multiple languages and cultures and that no one can know what knowledge of foreign language will add to job experience. He recounted a story he heard from a former student who was deployed in the Balkans during the mid-1990s and couldn't communicate with the locals in English. The student discovered they could speak German, and he was able to effectively communicate with the people around him using German he had learned in school.
All three students said they want to continue studying Japanese in college and possibly become translators. Garcia and Grisham are looking into Washington University in St. Louis and other universities around the country to major in Japanese, while Staysa is unsure. Regardless of where the students go, they think that learning Japanese has nonetheless enriched their lives.
"It brought a lot of different things I wouldn't have known," Garcia said.