INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Learning Japanese and the Shimajiro Connection

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

When my children were preschool age, one of the things my wife and I really wanted was for them to have a solid foundation in Japanese language. I had many reasons why, but just in general, learning a second language – any second language – can open doors that might remain closed to someone who is strictly monolingual, a category that most Americans fall into, sad to say.

Those doors can be cultural, but also, as an adult, economic, the old “learn to earn” formula. From the viewpoint of international competitiveness or perhaps national security, having as many Americans as possible conversant in many different tongues as possible can confer a huge advantage. Heck, even at the local level, knowing a second language can help when running a small business. (Can you imagine operating a restaurant in Los Angeles without knowing some basic Spanish?)

Some scientific studies are even saying that learning a second language as a child can help fight the effects of Alzheimer’s disease when older, since a young brain is forced to develop additional neural circuitry while learning, giving the brain extra pathways in which to work. Regardless, I told my kids that by the time they reached fifth grade, they had twice the vocabulary of their peers who only learned English, since they knew everyday nouns and verbs in two languages.

For us, learning Japanese was more for reasons of cultural heritage. Getting our kids to have a solid foundation in Nihongo was important, especially for my wife, as a native Japanese speaker. There was a time, of course, when many Japanese Americans made a conscious choice to eschew anything Japanese, including language, because of suspicions of disloyalty, especially during and after WWII. (That stigma, thank goodness, is no longer the case.)

Mayuka Thaïs

Fortunately for the war effort and the post-war occupation of Japan, there was an army of Japanese Americans who knew Nihongo and were part of the Military Intelligence Service. That knowledge those MIS men acquired not only helped end the war sooner and prevent additional bloodshed and suffering, post-war many of those Nisei were instrumental in helping rebuild Japan’s business infrastructure. If that’s not a solid case for learning a second language, in this case Nihongo, I don’t know what is!

Yes, there are also those folks who hated going to Japanese school on Saturdays when they were kids. I can totally relate to that! But many, as adults, later wish they’d stuck with it (like learning a musical instrument), especially since learning another language is way easier as a child.

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It turned out that many Japanese Americans I would to meet later via Culver City Unified School District’s El Marino Language School thought learning Nihongo was important, too. The school’s language immersion program (Japanese or Spanish) is wonderful, especially for a public school. I truly believe it’s a gift that will provide those kids a benefit for the rest of their lives.

During their preschool years, we did some other things with our kids, like sending them to a Japanese language kindergarten on Saturdays, Suika Yoochien, in our case. We also got Japanese language educational videos featuring Anpan Man (a cartoon character made of anpan). From relatives in Japan, we also used books and videos featuring an anthropomorphic tiger named Shimajiro. The company behind Shimajiro is the Benesse Corp., a major educational publisher in Japan.

Shimajiro

As I recall, there were books and videos (and toys) featuring the Shimajiro character, and they taught basic things like how to cross the street safely or the importance of washing one’s hands (paws?). In addition to the animated Shimajiro, there were bits that included live action, with singing and dancing. Overall, the Shimajiro program was a quality production.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the teacher of my daughter’s summer art courses at the Otis College of Art and Design performed on Shimajiro a few years ago! Her name is Mayuka, who acted and sang under the professional name Mayuka Thaïs (pronounced tie-us), and as of right now, she’s an adjunct art instructor at Otis who teaches youngsters as well as college-age students.

Turns out that Mayuka and her older sister, Kunimi Andrea, were both childhood performers in Japan and both of them appeared in Shimajiro, but in different seasons.

According to Mayuka, “We had a very unique childhood where my sister and I got to go back and forth between Japan growing up, because both of us want to be culturally balanced and to be able to speak English and Japanese well.”

The sisters’ backstory is fascinating, in that her mother, Teri Suzanne, a white American woman from Monrovia, met her future husband, Naoyuki Nagasawa of Japan, while she was studying there. Her first visit to Japan was through UCLA’s Exchange Abroad Program and she “fell in love” with the art, so much that after she graduated she implored her father to return. He may not have, however, expected his daughter to come back with a Japanese husband.

According to Mayuka, “One day she caught a cab in Harajuku and the taxi driver was really nice and was talking with her and asked, ‘Would you like to meet my son?’ ”

Well, as they say, the rest is history, and the couple would move to San Francisco as Teri finished her master’s degree at USF. Both sisters were born in San Francisco during this time. Sadly, the sisters’ father died of a stroke at age 45, when Mayuki was just 14, and she said it was a devastating event in her and her sister’s young life.

As the sisters were growing up, they studied at the bilingual theater at the Aoyama Round Theatre at the National Children’s Castle. (Their mother, meantime, appeared on TV shows that Japanese audiences can’t seem to get enough of, those shows that featured gaijin singing in Japanese.)

Mayuka later went on to do voiceover work, and she recorded more than a dozen music albums for the Japanese market. But she also recalled attending an elementary school in Japan where she encountered first-hand an experience that Japanese schools have become known for internationally.

“My sister and I, we were like the only Hapas in that school and we were really, really bullied,” she said. “I was always taller and every time we had a sports day, my blue-eyed, blonde mom would come and people would go, ‘Whoa!’ ”

For now, Mayuka is navigating her way through Los Angeles, a place with a host of opportunities to pursue for someone with her talents, be it earning her master’s degree and continuing to teach, or a career in acting or  singing or both – maybe she’ll even help with out at the aforementioned El Marino Language School. With her upbeat attitude and outgoing personality, something good will no doubt happen for her.

If you want to see and hear Mayuka’s singing talents, search for her name on YouTube. Also, you can visit her website, MayukaThais.com.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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