July 19, 2011 — The 37 students in the Japanese Academy started each day on the lawn outside Dabney House with rajio taiso, or radio calisthenics, a short exercise regime used in Japanese schools as a way to build morale and a sense of group unity, as well as to raise energy levels and encourage good health.
The University of Virginia hosted the academy, a summer language program of the Virginia Department of Education, for the first time this summer.
The state education department offers five language academies each summer for high school students at different institutions across the commonwealth; French, German and Spanish are offered as immersion programs, and Japanese and Chinese are partial-immersion academies.
Rachel Stauffer, outreach coordinator for U.Va.'s Asia Institute in the College of Arts & Sciences, knows firsthand how meaningful the program can be. An alumna of the Russian Academy, she went on to major in Russian studies and earn a doctorate in Slavic languages.
"We sincerely hope that students who participate in the program at U.Va this summer may eventually choose to return to U.Va as undergraduates to undertake coursework in Japanese language and/or East Asian Studies more generally," Stauffer said.
The three-week program – which closed Sunday with a ceremony in the Chemistry Building's auditorium in which the students presented a play in Japanese and demonstrated other cultural activities – is aimed at rising high school seniors who are interested in learning Japanese.
"The students do a full academic year of language and every day there is something cultural – lectures and activities," academy director Thomas Sones said.
This was Sones' ninth year leading the Japanese Academy, which had previously been at Virginia Commonwealth University. He and three other high school Japanese teachers focused on the program's language component. Three resident advisers, proficient in Japanese, helped lead some of the cultural activities and lectures.
"The students are all sophisticated and expect a high level of rigor and there is a great demand for the program," Sones said.
About two-thirds of the students, drawn from high schools throughout Virginia, had no exposure to Japanese before attending the academy. The demanding curriculum focuses on 3 1/2 hours of language instruction a day, plus a busy schedule of activities that included calligraphy; a tea ceremony; learning to wear the yukata, or summer kimono; dining in a Japanese restaurant; visits to the Japanese Garden at Maymont Park in Richmond; cooking three Japanese meals at U.Va.'s Lorna Sundberg International Center; and lectures on Japanese pop culture, business, economics and technology.
Condé (the program allows publication of only students' first names) is a high school student from Lexington who said it was fun to learn about the culture. "It is so different from ours, with an emphasis on aesthetics and a strong sense of unity and community," she said.
Riley, a student from Fairfax, said after his classmates learned to wear the yukata, they wore them to the dining hall. "It was a cultural experience putting on the clothes and feeling separated at dinner," he said.
Kyle, a student of South Korean heritage from Ashburn, said he wanted to study Japanese language and culture so he could help "break down the boundaries" between South Korea and Japan that his grandparents embrace. He said the language exercises and lectures have helped him boost his confidence in speaking Japanese.
Although the students are allowed to speak English, lunchtime is the exception. Kyle is delighted that "at lunch, I am almost fully capable of totally speaking in Japanese," he said.
Resident adviser Robin Riggins, a rising third-year College student majoring in Japanese and anthropology and a 2008 alumna of the Japanese Academy, said the program gave her confidence to consider majoring in the language. At the academy, "I found I was good at it," she said.
She taught two of the culture classes this summer – in literature and nature and wildlife.
For Jonathan Andreano, who graduated in May from U.Va. with a degree in East Asian studies, the Japanese Academy is a family tradition. Growing up in a military family, Andreano and his siblings lived all over Europe, but never studied Asia, he said. He and two siblings attended the academy, then majored in Japanese and East Asian studies. One is a current U.Va. student majoring in East Asian studies; another is a U.Va. alum working in Japan; and soon Andreano also will travel to Japan, where he will be the sole English teacher in a district, teaching preschool through junior high students.
"We all have our experiences in Japanese and bring those experiences to the program," Andreano said. "It makes the program unique."