Cerritos High School and Japanese high school students gather for a group photo. (Photo courtesy of Elijah Ting)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

One after another, current and former students spoke in defense of saving Japanese language as a class at Cerritos High School at the ABC Unified School District board meeting on Aug. 17.

Board members were in person, but public participation was limited to online due to the pandemic.

The ABC Unified School District board voted 6-1 that Cerritos High School be required to teach Japanese 1 for the semester that started on Aug. 23, but that has done little to assuage concerns that the language program could be phased out, following the retirement this summer of its longtime teacher, Joy Shiozaki-Kawamoto.

During the discussion, board member Ernie Nishii said it was vital, if the program is to survive, that Japanese 1 be offered in the fall. He raised concerns about the impact of the program’s demise on the district’s cultural exchange programs. Besides Japanese exchange, ABCUSD has hosted Day of Remembrance programs in February, where former incarcerees speak to students and teachers.

“I want to make sure Japanese is offered in fall of 2021, because it will kill the entire course. You can’t start a class in the middle of the year and have a full credit,” he said.

Speaking to The Rafu, Shiozaki-Kawamoto explained that she had taught four classes, Japanese 1-2-3-4, and had assumed after she retired that her replacement would be given the same class schedule.

Cerritos High School students use their Japanese skills to interview guests from Japan in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Joy Shiozaki-Kawamoto)

“A teacher was ready to apply for a transfer to take the four-period teaching assignment. When she was finally contacted in early August, she was told it was a two-period assignment. Cerritos had cancelled the Japanese 1 class that had had 33 students requests and had combined the two classes of J3-J4 to a combination class of 18 students in Japanese 3 and 18 students in Japanese 4,” she said.

“J1 was reinstated into the existing J2 class, which already has 18 students, resulting in two combination classes! It was not reinstated as a stand-alone class. Currently there are at least 27 students in this second combination class. To make matters worse, the students have not been put into the class based on their original last spring request. Instead they are having to find out by word-of-mouth that the class is available and then make an email request to their advisors to be put in.”

One of the students impacted is Keira Suzukida, currently a 9th grader, enrolled in what is now a combined Japanese 1 and 2 class. Mom Coreen Suzukida said her daughter was devastated when word got out that Japanese could be cut. In the same vote, ABCUSD approved adding American Sign Language as a course at Cerritos High. Keira had been learning some Japanese over the summer with an online tutor from Japan.

“Even now, my Japanese class is the class I look forward to at the end of a long day,” Keira said. “It’s been like a reward for making it through the rest of my classes, like a chance to learn something I’m incredibly passionate about. The small amount of time I get to practice this language in class makes my day. To converse and share this journey through the next four years with my classmates fills me with such contentment.

“All I hope for is to be able to continue learning and improving in Japanese with my peers to support me. If they take this program away, my goal of earning the seal of Biliteracy in Japanese and future opportunities will be so difficult.”

The Rafu has reached out to Cerritos High Principal Patrick Walker for comment. At the board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Mary Sieu said she had heard the comments and would respond. She noted that the staff was working to find candidates and resolve the issue.

During the board meeting, Julian Ely, a 1982 alumnus, offered a PowerPoint presentation that noted the economic impact of Japanese companies in Southern California. After studying Japanese with Shiozaki-Kawamoto, he went on to spend a year at Sophia University in Tokyo on a scholarship offered by the Rotary Foundation.

“The presence of a job market is to say nothing of the positive benefit to me of being exposed to Japanese culture, manners, and disposition — carefulness, cleanliness, diligence, politeness, respect — that would have been valuable to me in any career and is valued by employers across the board. 

“In short, Japan has positively affected just about every part of my life, and I owe much to Cerritos High’s program,” Ely said. “Japanese language and club activities have been constants at CHS for almost 50 years, benefitting many students in many ways. I hate to think that the program could be dissolved when there is still a demand and still perhaps the most potential benefits to students among the many great foreign-language options, except Spanish perhaps, for this region.”

Among the issues that have been raised by a number of supporters was an alleged comment by administration that Japanese is a “dying language.” Many pointed to the school’s Chikara Club and Japanese National Honor Society as vital activities that provide opportunities for learning important cultural values and giving back to the community. The clubs have volunteered to pack food at the Orange County Food Bank and have provided more than 2,000 care packages to military personnel.

Elijah Ting, a recent graduate and president of the Chikara Club, countered that Japanese as a “dying language” is far from the truth. Cerritos High has hosted students from Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, in a program started in 2001.

“As far as I’m concerned, we are the only foreign language from Cerritos High to bring students from another country where we host students for a day or two,” Ting stated. “In fact, Chikara and JNHS have been the root cause for bringing in over 400 Japanese exchange students to Cerritos’ campus. I’ve humbly had the pleasure of hosting over six students during my time and introduce them to friends around school, and a formal introduction to the American education system. It was also a great way for students who studied the language to have a practical use for speaking Japanese; communicating with the foreign students. We just had fun!”

Ryan Scammahorn said, “Not only was I able to learn about Japanese culture and language, but the program helped create a sense of community in a school which seemed so big to me. I was able to learn and grow with the same group of people in this program throughout all four years of high school, allowing me to create life-long friendships and a sense of ‘family’ on school campus.”

Alana FranchescaCruz, a recent graduate, had another reason students want to study Japanese — the popularity of anime, including “The Last Airbender” and “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train.”

“This would be perfect opportunity for Japanese class to expand even if it’s to understand their anime without subtitles, but by cutting it off you miss that opportunity,” she said.

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