Parents, teachers, staff and alumni filled the Kabuki Hotel’s ballroom Oct. 14 in San Francisco’s Japantown for a sold out 50th anniversary gala for the Rosa Parks Elementary School’s Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program. The event looked back at the program’s history and honored its key players throughout the years under the theme: “Sedai wo Koete: Beyond Generations.”
Cecily Ina, a second grade teacher at the program, and Mayumi Fujita, a new Japanese sensei who started at the program this year, emceed the bilingual reception, trading off between English and Japanese, as the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts World Music Department’s taiko ensemble kicked off the formal program.
Aside from the normal gamut of speeches commemorating the event and congratulating honorees, the program added a unique touch by including an abridged version of radio taiso (radio exercises) to stave off the food coma from the teriyaki dinners, though the regimen did not include any jumping, much to the relief of anyone wearing heels.
Yo Osumi, the new consul general of Japan in San Francisco, led the toast following the kagami biraki featuring Laura Schmidt-Nojima, principal of Rosa Parks Elementary; Suzanne Yamada, founder and advisory board member; Phyllis Matsuno, a JBBP founder and Yuka Inoue, one of the Japanese-speaking sensei in the program.
The program gave out six awards that evening. Two awards honored longtime families who have participated in the program, two to former teachers who remain active with the program in their retirement, a founding advisory board member and the elementary school’s longtime student advisor.
Gayle Kojimoto-Hume, the gala committee’s co-chair, presented the Leading Light Award to Naomi Nishioka “in recognition for being a continuing force guiding JBBP with her wisdom and persistence.”
“Naomi is not just one of our founders of the program, she has, for many years now, … been on the advisory board and on the PTCC as a community liaison,” she said.
Kojimoto-Hume, who is both an alumni and parent of two alumni, recognized Nishioka for her guidance in ensuring the Parent Teacher Community Council maintained the program founders’ vision, and remaining an active part of the program to this day.
“Fifty years ago when we first met to plan out how to get the school district to approve our Japanese bilingual program, we knew nothing. We did not realize how hard it would be to get this program started and to keep it going. So if we had, there probably wouldn’t have been a second meeting,” Nishioka said. “There were two things I remember that we really wanted the program to be. One, we wanted the district to teach English to Japanese-speaking students, and we wanted the district to teach Japanese language and culture to other non-Japanese-speaking (students). And … secondly, we wanted a diverse program.”
Nishioka and other founding members hastily put the program together after the San Francisco Board of Education approved it on Aug. 7, 1973, a month before the new school year.
“What we had was a shell of a program. We had a concept. We knew what we wanted, but it’s taken 50 years of parents, families, community and mostly staff to produce a program that your children are in now or have just gone through,” she said.
Along with Nishioka, the program recognized the Hata and Tsukamoto families with The Generations Award “in recognition for their devotion to the growth of JBBP and the well-being of our children through multigenerational support and guidance.”
Nanayo Silver, senior clerk at the elementary school, recognized the Hata family.
“Three generations of Hatas have been involved with and attended JBBP … When you think about it, a Hata has been in every JBBP location since its second year of conception,” Silver said.
The elder Hatas’ children attended the program through its nomadic first years when classes moved between seven different schools in the first six years. The family’s late matriarch, Joyce Hata, was recognized for her work as the program’s parent liaison in 1978. She passed away on Sept. 2.
“Thanks to her family’s support Mrs. Hata stayed on as our parent liaison for about 27 years, retiring while we were at JBBP West (now the SFUSD testing center),” Silver said.
Kristen Hata, Joyce Hata’s eldest daughter, said her mother would not want to be in the limelight today, but agreed with Silver on her mother’s far-reaching impact.
“When I was talking to the person at the mortuary last month, he said, ‘You know, I knew your mom. She helped me get my kids into the Japanese bilingual program,’” she said.
The Tsukamoto family also joined the JBBP in its second year when their eldest daughter Lisa Tsukamoto entered kindergarten in 1974, although Myrna Tsukamoto said they had been meeting with founders Kenji and Seiko Murase and Phyllis Matsuno at Kaye Higashi’s house well before the program started.
“My goal was — I’m Chinese, my husband’s Japanese — one (daughter would) speak Chinese and the other speaks Japanese, didn’t work out that way,” she said. Her daughters Lisa Tsukamoto and Miya Tsukamoto-Chiu, both teach at Rosa Parks, and the Chiu family has sent their children through the program as well.
Myrna Tsukamoto said it took considerable lobbying to find permanent homes for the program, first at Clarendon Alternative Elementary School in 1981 and later at Rosa Parks in 2006.
“Because we were like second class citizens. That’s how we felt,” Myrna Tsukamoto said.
Upholding the Vision
Taeko Morioka served as a long-time sensei, a native-speaking Japanese culture and language instructor, for 40 years, retiring this past year. The program recognized her with the Spirit of JBBP award, “in recognition for embodying the mission and vision of JBBP, and to celebrate her 40-plus years of service.”
She helped start the program’s annual undokai (sports day) and Oshogatsu (new year) programs, as well as its speech program. Her involvement started in 1979 when her eldest daughter Vivian Morioka enrolled in the program at Anza School (now Raoul Wallenberg High School). Leonard Morioka, her son and a current parent of a first grader at the program, introduced his mother as a dedicated teacher who held three jobs at the same time and even graded papers in the delivery room while his sister was giving birth.
“Couple of weeks ago, at undokai, which is something that she started 23 years ago, … the fifth grade class spotted her, and they ran up and just mobbed her. She was engulfed by the kids … I just stood there, a great reminder for me of the lasting impact that she’s had to her students as a teacher, mentor and friend to everyone in the program,” he said.
Morioka described the rift that formed at Clarendon Elementary School that led to the program’s split in 2000. The program moved to Clarendon in the Twin Peaks neighborhood from the centrally located Anza school in 1981. While the school was initially not as popular in the city, the “good” environment and high test scores at Clarendon made the school popular among parents in the city.
When budget cuts required the city to pick and choose what to fund, Morioka said the parents at Clarendon opted to prioritize their library, school computers and physical education. To cover the loss of funding for the JBBP, the school proposed to cut the “Sensei Model,” which provided language and cultural education through native Japanese speaking teachers like Morioka.
With pressure from a number of advisory committee members and parents, as well as staff, including Morioka, the school district split the program in two. The revised program without the sensei remained at Clarendon, while the other half left for DeAvila Elementary School in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
“After that we didn’t have a school to go to until two weeks before the start of the new school year. We were sent to a school called DeAvila,” she said in Japanese to the Nichi Bei News. “It was a taihen (terrible) place. I had to paint my own classroom.”
Not everything was terrible at DeAvila, however, as Bruce Waters, a teacher at the school joined the JBBP there. Although he had no prior connection to the program, he took the opportunity to be a “model student” of Japanese in Morioka’s class, making him the “oldest student ever in fourth grade.” He followed the program from DeAvila to JBBP West in 2003, where it stayed for three years before finally moving to Rosa Parks.
The Gala recognized Waters with the Eternal Educator Award “in recognition for his continued service to JBBP through his professional insight that supports and guides the program.” Waters, who retired in 2005, currently serves on the program’s advisory board.
“I would have to say, since I have such good people to work with, I still think I’m biased: teachers and sensei, all teachers in the school, those, to me, are the heart of the program. The interactions every day is wherever the program lives,” he said.
Spirit of the Founders
Along with the longtime program members who have stayed with the program over multiple sites, the JBBP also recognized Lewis “Mr. T” Thompson, Rosa Parks Elementary School’s student advisor. Yukari Noguchi, a first grade teacher at the program said Thompson, who started at the school in 1995 prior to it renaming to Rosa Parks in 1997, is a “very humble person” who never brags, so she “did the bragging for him,” describing how he opens the school up every morning, greets kids off the school bus and checks in on colleagues having a rough day. He sings “happy birthday” and does magic tricks for the kids. The room chanted “Mr. T” as he received the Spirt of the Founders Award recognizing “his significant contributions to JBBP, and for embodying the values of authenticity, quality and integrity that have enabled our program to endure and thrive through his professional insight that supports and guides the program.”
“Somehow I don’t see it, because I just do what I do,” Thompson said. “Doing what I do at Rosa Parks, that’s the way I am. … I thank you again for giving me this award, for letting me be Mr. T, that’s all I know to be, is to be Mr. T.”
The program’s eventual relocation to Rosa Parks also holds some significance for longtime members. Will Tsukamoto, who is 93, said he attended Raphael Weill when he lived in Japantown prior to World War II. He was picked up at the school when he was incarcerated during the war. Karen Kai, a longtime advisory board member with her late husband Robert Rusky, said she had an “intellectual understanding” of bringing the program to San Francisco’s Japantown in 2006, but realized the true power the move had after the school moved in.
“What I really value is how it is really bringing people to community and making that even stronger,” she said. Parents at the JBBP have helped make a case to San Francisco city planners to keep the pedestrian bridge over Geary Boulevard during the Geary Bus Rapid Transit project planning and the school is recognized as part of the Japantown Cultural District as well.
Ina, in closing the program, said the program is invaluable for teaching children Japanese language as well as culture and history.
“All four of my grandparents were interned in the camps, and when they came out, they did what a lot of Japanese Americans did, they stopped speaking Japanese. They stopped cultural things, and so growing up, I didn’t speak any Japanese. My parents don’t speak Japanese, they can understand it,” she said. “So, learning, teaching at this program, this is my 15th year at this school, I learned so much more around culture and my own language from this program, and so because of that, that’s why my daughter is going through the program. And so it’s really important that we continue this program for another 50-plus years.”
Tomo Hirai is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American lesbian trans woman born in San Francisco and raised in Walnut Creek, Calif., where she continues to reside. She attended the San Francisco Japanese Hoshuko (supplementary school) through high school and graduated from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Communications and Japanese, along with a minor in writing. She serves as a diversity consultant for table top games and comic books in her spare time.