"What is the meaning of hippari dako?"

Stephen Dobeck looked at Kane Kanagawa, who looked at Jake Levin. All eyes -- and ears -- were on the three freshmen from the Potomac School in McLean yesterday afternoon at George Mason University's Lecture Hall, where they had 30 seconds to translate the Japanese expression into English.

Their competition was formidable in the championship round of the Japan Bowl's Washington area regional final. Sitting next to them was a senior-led team from Princess Anne High in Virginia Beach. Across from them was the sophomore-laden squad from Thomas Jefferson, the powerful Fairfax County magnet high school.

"TJ has a notorious reputation for being good," Kane said.

Indeed, Jefferson has a sizable Japanese language program, with six classes totaling about 100 students. The Potomac School has one class with five students.

But if the competition seemed like a mismatch, it missed the point. The Japan Bowl was founded 11 years ago by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., to encourage high school students to study the Japanese language specifically and Japanese culture generally.

Once limited to Washington, the Japan Bowl has grown over the years, with 18 cities holding preliminary competitions and sending winners to the finals, which will be held April 19 in the District.

"The greater goal is to expose American students to another culture with the idea being that they'll gain more international understanding," said Laurel Lukaszewski, the Japan-America Society's executive director.

Students from 15 high schools in Maryland, the District and Virginia took part yesterday in three divisions, determined by their language ability. The event was run like the television show "It's Academic," minus the cheerleaders. Three teams competed simultaneously, with buzzers for the speed round.

Most questions involved translation ("How do you say, 'The subway station is in front of the department store?' ") and reading kanji, hiragana and katakana, the Japanese characters used in writing.

Some students said they were studying Japanese to learn something other than such traditional "romance languages" as French or Spanish. Some Asian-American students said they wanted to learn an Asian language. Others said they got interested through friends.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Why do you take that? Nobody speaks it.' But that's total bull," said Jake, the Potomac School's captain, ignoring, for the moment, the judges' instructions that students respond in "the polite form."

In any case, the teams prepared strenuously. The Thomas Jefferson team practiced during the eighth period of each school day leading up to the competition.

James Giangregoria, Princess Anne's senior captain, observed: "Jefferson has practiced a lot because they answer really quick."

Jefferson students took issue with their reputation as bookish aces. Informed that Potomac School team members said Jefferson should be considered the favorite, Benjamin O'Neil shot back, "Well, they pay to go to school."

But the Potomac team is all freshmen, someone noted. "We could tell by their height," quipped Jefferson sophomore Tina Chen.

Now, as Jake leaned toward the microphone with time ticking down, the time for trash talk was over.

"Hippari dako . . . it means, 'A spread-eagle octopus,' " Jake said, explaining later that an octopus pulled in many directions is a Japanese metaphor for a popular person.

He was right, and his team was headed to the national competition, having nipped Jefferson by a single question. Teams from Falls Church High and St. Albans School won the higher levels to advance as well.

"We never thought we'd get this far," Stephen said. "Yeah," Kane agreed, adding a Japanese word to show excitement: "Sugoi!"

Thomas Jefferson teammates Tina Chen, left, and Timothy Smith sort through points their team won and lost to determine if they won their competition.Potomac School teammates, from left, Stephen Dobeck, Jake Levin and Kane Kanagawa, listen as a competitor translates a phrase from Japanese to English.