Story and photo by Rod Grimes
How many students are learning a second language? How many schools in Arizona are teaching Japanese? How many African-American students are learning Japanese in high school and college? I attended the 17th Annual Arizona Japanese Speech Contest held at Gilbert High School on Sunday, April 17, and found some answers for the latter two questions.
The Japanese speech contest was sponsored by Gilbert High School and the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles. Each year it moves to a different school.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was invited by my niece Patricia McPherson to attend this event because her son (my grand nephew) Saif McPherson (a freshman at Arcadia High School) was a participant. This was most intriguing, as I previously worked for a Japanese company for 20 years. I was told that out of the 49 participants, only 18 were high school students and Saif was one of three Arcadia High School students participating. Saif has only been studying Japanese for seven months, and he’s already entering the biggest Japanese speech contest in Arizona. He obviously felt ready to meet the challenge.
In addition, and as an observer and chronicler of Black life, I was curious to see how many Black and other minority students were involved in the program. Of interest is that the two African-American students who entered the competition received two of the 13 category prizes.
The high schools offering Japanese language are Saguaro, Desert Mountain, Paradise Honors, Arcadia, Gilbert, Highland, Coronado, Desert Ridge, and Valley Vista. The colleges offering Japanese language courses are Glendale Community, ASU, Pima Community, Mesa Community, NAU, and UofA.
On reviewing the program brochure, I found that the competition was quite steep. For example, there were four main categories, and the entry level category “Category A” stipulated the entrants would be “college students taking first semester Japanese language courses, high school students who are currently taking first or second semester Japanese language courses, or students who are in first or second semester Japanese Language classes for three or less credits. Students in this category must be taking these courses for the first time and must have never lived in our traveled in Japan for ten days.”
The categories then become increasingly challenging. The highest category “Category D” is for college level students who are “currently taking Japanese language courses beyond the fourth semester or who have lived in Japan for more than two years or in a situation that required using Japanese, or high school level students who are currently taking high school level Japanese language courses beyond the sixth semester or who have lived in Japan for more than two years in a situation that required using Japanese”
After the “Category A” students completed their speeches, I was totally impressed with the ease and obvious comfort most students exhibited in their presentations. As the groups progressed through to “Category D”, their classroom and or practical training and confidence was clearly evident. If you were to close your eyes, you could easily envision being in Japan listening to the locals holding everyday conversations. Truly impressive.
The prize categories were numerous with the grand prize being a free round trip for two to any major airport in Japan including flights to connecting cities within Japan – plus expenses paid. The prize donors and sponsors were as varied as Japan Air Lines, Kabuki Japanese Restaurants, Turtle Publishing, Arizona Diamondbacks, Sun Devil Campus stores, and many more.