Rosa Parks Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program celebrates 40th anniversary

The Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program of Rosa Parks Elementary School celebrated its 40th anniversary on March 9 at The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, with a silent auction, dinner and performances. According to parent volunteer Jade Corkish, about 315 people attended the event.

“Today is honoring those people who really fought for the program 40 years ago, who had a vision and implemented it and we’re trying to continue in their footsteps and stay true to their vision of the program,” said Deborah Hamilton, a JBBP parent teacher community council co-chair.

Children enrolled with the JBBP learn the core curriculum designated by the school district, as well as the Japanese language and culture, which are integrated through instruction. They also get involved with cultural events like oshogatsu (new year) and gakugeikai (performing arts night).

Lisa Tsukamoto, a JBBP kindergarten instructor, said the students in the program are enthusiastic. “They love to learn, they really embrace the Japanese language and culture and we have a very diverse student population as well so it’s nice,” said Tsukamoto, who is the first graduate of the program to return to it and teach.

JBBP started in 1973 after Phyllis Matsuno spoke with Nobusuke Fukuda about the idea of starting a Japanese bilingual program for elementary students. From that, six other Japanese American community members — including Naomi Nishioka, Kaye Higashi, Jacques Fitch, Kanji Kuramoto, Suzanne Yamada and Shiro Watanabe — joined Matsuno and Fukuda to seek support from the San Francisco Unified School District to start the program. After several meetings with the Board of Education, the superintendent and the director of Bilingual Education and persistence from the founders, the bilingual department staff supported them, and seven months later, the board approved a JBBP program for kindergarten through second grade students. Artist Ruth Asawa helped bring art into the program, while Yori Wada, a former University of California regent and community leader, used his political experience. Will Tsukamoto, Kenji Murase, Seiko Murase and others joined the group as honorary founders around 1974, according to Matsuno.

Even after receiving approval from the district, however, Nishioka said it did not give the founders support or a direction to move forward. Because of this, the children’s parents and other members of the community got together to fundraise for the program.

JBBP has gone through many schools, starting with Emerson Elementary School (now called William L. Cobb School), and settled in Rosa Parks Elementary School, just outside of San Francisco’s Japantown, in 2007.
According to Hamilton, Rosa Parks Elementary School has two programs: the general education program and the Japanese program, which is considered a citywide school. Both programs exist under one roof, and the children are not entirely divided from each other, Hamilton said.

“We do a lot of activities together and there’s definitely a feeling of being one whole school as opposed to kind-of cohabiting, and that’s something that’s very important to us,” she said.

According to Matsuno and Nishioka, the program was organized in an effort to not only teach Japanese-speaking children English, but also to teach younger Japanese American generations the language that has been lost to them through the generations in the aftermath of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in American concentration camps during World War II.

“Basically we were ripped off of our language and culture because of the war experience,” said Matsuno, who was born in a concentration camp. “It was an American concentration camp and it put a stigma on our being Japanese because that’s how we were identified, (the) 110,000 of us that were interned.”

The 40th anniversary event began with a silent auction of items ranging from Japanese teapot sets to art pieces made by the students. Money raised from the auction will fund salaries for the four native Japanese-speaking teachers, because the school district does not provide enough funding to cover all of their salaries. These teachers provide about an hour of Japanese language instruction to students every day, according to Hamilton.

Parent Erika Onuma said she loves the program. Her son, 8-year-old Alex Ohlenschlager, has been in the program since kindergarten and he said he likes to learn Japanese at school because of the fun activities.

“My son has Japanese with a native teacher every day. He’s learning hiragana, he’s going (on) now to katakana and kanji. There’s a lot of Japanese culture, and best of all is the community of parents,” she said.

Onuma is also a singer for the JBBP parent band called The Rents, which performed a few songs at the event.

Not only is it important for the children to learn about their heritage and know where they came from, but Matsuno and Nishioka also agree that it is beneficial to know a second language.

“It’s really important for the kids to know who they are and to be able to speak the language,” Matsuno said.

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