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Chicago Shimpo

2nd Annual Heritage Japanese Language Speech Contest Shines Light on Diverse Cultural Experience

• Twenty students who learn the Japanese language as their heritage shared their diverse experiences of growing up in a multicultural environment during the 2nd annual Heritage Japanese Language Speech Contest held at the Japan Information Center in Chicago on January 28.

• The contest, a spin-off from the Japanese Speech Contest, held its first independent competition last year with the aim to provide the children of Japanese heritage with an opportunity to talk about their life experience. It’s co-organized by the Japanese Consulate General in Chicago, Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Chicago, Japan America Society of Chicago and Osaka Committee, Chicago Sister Cities International.

• Consul General Naoki Ito welcomed the contestants and their families saying that the contest is an important event precisely because “it is the place for all of us to get together.”
• According to Ito, today there are about 34,000 Japanese nationals living in the 10 states under the jurisdiction of the Japanese Consulate General in Chicago. Twenty years ago, there were about 3,500 Japanese permanent residents in the same area, and the number has grown to 12,600 today.
• “The number of the heritage Japanese language learners is rising each year,” Ito said. “The Consulate General in Chicago intends to continue sponsoring the Heritage Japanese Speech Contest in order to encourage and support those who study Japanese as their heritage.”

• The contest consists of two categories – the 1st category for elementary and junior high school students, and the 2nd for high school and college students. After each presentation, the head of the judges asked the contestant some questions in Japanese. The answers were part of the points to be considered by the judges.

Winners of the Awards

• Iris Takahashi-Bloede from the 2nd category won the Grand Prize with the speech entitled “I am from Yamada, Wisconsin in Japan-America.”
• Takahashi-Bloede’s father is American and her mother is Japanese. She has been raised as an American, but has had many conflicting feelings and experiences.
• When she went to a camp as part of the junior-high extracurricular activities, the camp counselor (a high school student) said to her: “You’re cute - what are you?” A perplexed Takahashi-Bloede couldn’t understand what the counselor was getting at. It didn’t sound flattering. “I mean, what nationality? Not an American, right?” From that moment on, she had become self-conscious about how she looked different from other Americans. Even at the Futabakai Japanese Saturday School, which she attends, she would receive comments like, “Look, even a foreigner is laughing,” when she was laughing with the other students. It felt as though she couldn’t find her place in either the American circle or the Japanese one.
• Her mother had always told her that she was lucky to have been born with a bicultural background. But Takahashi-Bloede couldn’t be sure what it meant to have two cultures as her heritage.
• She had been involved in the “introducing the Japanese culture” activities since she was a small child. When the earthquake and tsunami disaster hit her mother’s hometown, Yamada-machi in the Iwate prefecture, she helped collect donations for the victims and delivered it to an elementary school in Yamada. That led her to discovering where her place was in this world – “I could be a bridge between Japan and America.”
• She said her parents had been instrumental in her studying at the Futabakai Japanese Saturday School for 11 years. Her mother drives 3 hours to take her to the school in Illinois from their home in Wisconsin.
• When Takahashi-Bloede didn’t want to go the Saturday School, her mother would persuade her that she would “definitely thank” her parents for it later.
• Now that she had made many friends at the Saturday School and passed the kanji skill test last October, Takahashi-Bloede “secretly” thanks her parents, as her mother had predicted.
• She prefers the word “double” to refer to a person born to two culturally different parents over “half,” a commonly used word for such a person in Japan. Your life can be twice as rich when you know all the pride, joy, sorrow and pain of the both of the two cultures, she said.
• “I am not half American and half Japanese; I’m always a Japanese-American, who was born in Yamada, Wisconsin in Japan-America. Hooray for Double Me!” she concluded.

• During the interview following the awards presentation, Takahashi-Bloede said she had been through bullying at school because of her Asian background, but is now doing fine as a “double.” She plans to go into the field of medicine in the future.
• Takahashi-Bloede’s mother, Shoko, commented that she has a humble hope that her daughter would carry on her Japanese heritage to her children and their children.
• Takahashi-Bloede’s father, Ben, had lived in Japan for 15 years, graduating from the Tohoku University Graduate School, and speaks Japanese fluently.
• Shoko said her daughter had often wanted to quit the Saturday School. When she would refuse to go, Shoko said her husband would literally “drag” their daughter to the school while Shoko would struggle to persuade her. Her unexpected, “secret” thanks in her speech made her so happy, Shoko added.
• Takahashi-Bloede received a round trip ticket to Japan donated by All Nippon Airways.

• Hinako Fujimaki was awarded the first prize of the 2nd category with her speech called “What is Family?”
• Born in China, Fujimaki moved to the U.S. with her family three years ago. Those were the three years that she witnessed many forms of family and came to think what family means.
• In Japan, people have a negative image about divorce and parents tend to stay married, against their will, until the children have become adults. Women often can’t divorce their husbands because of the potential financial burdens to raise their children. How can it be good for the children when there’s no love between their parents?
• In contrast, Fujimaki was surprised to see how open American families are about adoption. One day her Asian friend, whose parents are white, asked her to teach her some Chinese words of greetings before meeting with her biological parents. The stepparents had no problem letting the adopted child meet the biological parent! No matter how complicated the family relation is, it’s possible when the family members are living in harmony, Fujimaki realized.
• There are so many different forms of family in America, she said. Some children live with stepparents who had divorced and remarried multiple times. But the type and form of family are not bound to certain rules, and any family can be an ideal family as long as its members share love and understanding with each other. Imagining her future family, she is glad to have realized that there are more than one form of family, Fujimaki concluded.

• The first prize of the 1st category went to Eito Tokunaga and his speech “Language and I.”
• Tokunaga, 8, had lived in Mexico from the ages of 5 to 7, and couldn’t play soccer with other kids because he didn’t speak Spanish. Then his mother said to him: “You can’t make any friends unless you speak to the others first,” and he began learning Spanish. By repeating the words he heard, he gradually increased his vocabulary, and ended up enjoying speaking Spanish and making many friends.
• He also enrolled in a Japanese school part-time to supplement his Japanese learning, where he made Japanese-speaking friends.
• “For me, Japanese is a special language, because that’s the language I use to talk to my family, my parents, and Grandpa and Grandma in Japan,” Tokunaga said. “I want to learn many more languages so that I can talk to a lot of friends and their families.”

• Fujimaki and Tokunaga each received a $100 gift card donated by Sumitomo Corporation of America and an audio headset by Panasonic Corporation of North America.

• The Chicago Shimpo Award was given to Zen Nagao from the 1st category and Karen Yamada from the 2nd category.
• In her speech called “The First Step towards My Future,” Yamada, 17, shared her struggle to plan her future. Unable to see her path toward the future, she said she had decided to find what she was interested in as the first step.
• Knowing that she likes to teach, Yamada had tried tutoring English to Japanese students. Raised in the U.S. by Japanese parents, she understands both languages. She made it her goal to help the Japanese children who were struggling at local schools. And there were a lot of them, as she discovered. As she stepped into the shoes of a tutor, her teaching skill gradually improved, and many complimented her as a good teacher.
• This experience gave her the feeling of accomplishment and made her aware that was something she could do with her specific skill for a bilingual tutor.
• You can be happy if you find out what you enjoy to do most. This discovery opened her eyes toward the future and she now feels she can think about her future with less fear. The next step for her would be to think more specifically what she can do, and through more life experience learn to let her true color shine, Yamada said.

20 contestants pose for a photo

Contestants' families and friends listen to speeches.

Iris Takahashi-Bloede, winner of the Grand Prize (C), Consul General Naoki Ito (L),
and Tomoyuki Osaki, General Manager of the All Nippon Airways

The Chicago Shimpo Award winners, Zen Nagao (L) and Karen Yamada (R)