Japanese language class returns to Washougal High School after program was cut

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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WASHOUGAL -- Conjugating verbs is one of those dreaded routines one's forced to do in any foreign language class. But memorizing kanji -- Japanese script, with its complicated iconography -- takes the level of difficulty to head-scratching heights.

Students in Shoko Fuchigami Parker's Japanese class at Washougal High School are learning that firsthand, thanks to the return of the school's Japanese program.

"I thought this language would be the most challenging," said Tristan Hoyt, 14. "And it is really challenging."

After taking some time off, the Japanese program returned to Washougal High School for 2012-13 school year, joining Spanish, French, German and American Sign Language as the school's foreign language options.

The program was temporarily cut during the 2011-12 school year. Now, Parker

is looking to "rebuild the program," she said.

That can be tough, though. The program's reputation precedes it.

The class has never been popular, primarily because it's seen as being too difficult. Indeed, some kids consider it a "terrifying" option, Parker's students say.

And Parker doesn't entirely disagree with those sentiments. "Only about one or two students say they want to be challenged," she said.

Still, 20 students are being challenged by a language and culture that's nothing like American.

And they want to share some of it with the rest of the community. At the center of Parker's effort to rebuild the Japanese program is the return of Japanese Cultural Festival, which will enter its seventh year in April.

The cultural festival will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. on April 6 at the high school's Commons and Washburn Auditorium, 1201 39th St., Washougal.

Students participating in the cultural festival --known as a bunkasai in Japanese --plan to bring many of their own Japanese interests to the festival.

Parker points out that many of her students already come from Asian backgrounds.

Meika Ahn, 17, moved to Washougal from South Korea two years ago. She said she decided to take the class because she thought Japanese would be easy because of her background.

"It's totally not," she said with a chuckle. "I was so surprised."

Others, such as Tess Russell, 16, want to go to Japan one day and be able to speak the language.

Russell is half Japanese. Her mom originally hails from Yokohama, located near where the Tohoku earthquake hit in 2011.

Following the earthquake and tsunami, when Russell was in the eighth grade, she started an ad hoc charity that sent 1,000 origami doves to Japan, along with money, to lend support to the cleanup efforts.

One day, she hopes to go to the country.

"I really want to extend my knowledge of Japan," Russell said. "I thought taking the class would be good for when I go over there to be able to communicate."

Parker said this year's Japanese festival will be filled with music, food and fun.

And much like the rest of the class, which proves to be a challenge, it will take the kids out of their comfort zones.

Some students will put on kimonos and perform dances.

Others will make food.

All will construct origami cranes. And for some, that can be just as difficult as learning kanji.

"How do you even do origami?" Ahn asked Parker.

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.