Great Falls Elementary's Japanese garden preserves threatened tie to culture

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:14 PM

Few elementary schools can casually invite a handful of world leaders, dignitaries and congressmen to the opening of a community garden and count on the high-powered invitees to show up. But at Great Falls Elementary School, one of the first Japanese immersion programs in the American public school system, those relationships have been forged over many years, even as the internationally recognized program was nearly shut down last year due to budget cuts.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed guests to the new "friendship garden," greeting a crowd of children that responded, in unison, with a pitch-perfect "ohayo gozaimasu," or good morning.

Students at Great Falls have been learning science, math and other basic subjects in Japanese since 1989, when Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) urged the county to deepen its ties with Japan, whose economy was booming at the time. "We looked at why some American companies were succeeding while others failed - the one common denominator was language ability," Wolf said. "These kids can literally fly to Japan, get out of a cab and make a deal."

As Japan's prominence faded slightly in the eyes of Washington and Wall Street, Great Falls Elementary only strengthened its relationship with the Japanese political elite. The country's emperor and empress visited in 1996. A series of ambassadors have visited. And Prime Minister Abe and his wife, Akie Abe, have long maintained a connection to the program.

"This immersion program was a starting point for deeper engagement with Japan and its culture," Abe said Friday.

Every year, the program's sixth-graders spend a week in Japan, where they are greeted by some of the country's top leaders and considered a symbol of ongoing binational friendship. But for much of last year, it looked like the program might be eliminated due to budget cuts along with the rest of elementary foreign language education in the county.

Even as they welcomed dignitaries on Friday, teachers, students and parents were still crossing their fingers that the program will survive. They raved about their accomplishments, including a recent grant from the United States-Japan Foundation, which funded the new garden.

"We don't just learn the language, we learn the culture, the traditions and the folktales. It's a lot of fun," said Aya White, a sixth-grade student.

"Everyone is talking about China and India, but this is a reminder that our relationship with Japan is still our most important," Wolf said, as a group of students clad in traditional Japanese garb made its way back to class.

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