Report: JF Nihongo Summer Camp 2013 

by Colin Marshall (columnist)

I spent a few months of my adolescence struggling to teach myself Japanese, then put the subject down in frustration and didn’t pick it up again for a decade. Having received five straight days’ worth of immersion in Japanese language and culture, the kids attending the Japan Foundation Los Angeles’ JF Nihongo Summer Camp may well avoid that mistake. 

I paid these eleven students a visit on their final day at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, after they’d already learned a variety of expressions, a bit of vocabulary, and the katakana alphabet. They’d also extensively explored the surrounding neighborhood of Little Tokyo, getting acquainted with its host of Japanese-run shops and restaurants. As a culmination of all this learning and experience, they’d prepared bilingual presentations for their parents and instructors on their favorite aspects of Japanese or Little Tokyo culture. 

The eleven young teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds, some part-Japanese themselves, stood up one-by-one to introduce and contextualize their topics of choice, from Buddhist temples to the Marukai market to Japanese fashion to plastic restaurant food models to mochi (“I don’t think about calories; I just love mochi”) to the politeness of the Japanese people.

Clearly, the JF Nihongo Summer Camp had not only given these kids the impetus for further study of the Japanese language — at the day’s end, I overheard several parents discussing the next classes in which they planned to enroll their children — but had introduced them to a beloved part of the city of Los Angeles that, with many living in far-flung suburbs, they’d never properly experienced.

I know that, had I myself discovered Little Tokyo at the age of fourteen or fifteen, I’d have found it one of the most exciting neighborhoods I’d ever visited. And had I received a similarly friendly entrée into the Japanese language, which I found then and still find now a particularly interesting one to study, I’d probably have it mastered today. However much these students go on to dedicate themselves to the language, I doubt they’ll ever lose their newly heightened awareness of Japanese culture — or their Little Tokyo savvy.