Shigin and Bilingual Pre-School

One of our interviewees in Los Angeles, Patrick Seki, who is a teacher of the art of Shigin singing (the ancient art of very intense singing of Chinese poetry), told us about a pre-school in Lomita, CA, where students were being given the opportunity to learn Shigin! I always thought Shigin was for adults because whenever I heard people perform it, they would be standing straight up, eyes closed, singing at the top of their lungs! (very healthy art form, I’ve been finding out!) And the singing style is very intricate, not easy at all, with vocal runs up and down, requiring long breaths.

Here, Kokko Ohigashi So-Shihan of BeiKaHaku Kokusei Ryu Shigin-kai sings a poem written by Chushu Mishima, a Japanese scholar who studied Chinese poetry at the prestigious Edo Shohei Ko.  He later established his own school which became one of the greatest of the three renowned schools in the Edo period. The poem, as well as its English translation:

Isohama nite boyoro ni noboru
Yoru noboru hyaku-seki kaiwan no roo
Kyokumoku izure no hen ka kore beishuu
Gaizen tachimachi hassu ensei no kokorozashi
Tsuki wa shiroshi tooyoo banri no aki
Climbing the tower at Isohama1
At night, I climb a lookout tower along the coast to view the Pacific Ocean2
I look beyond the ocean’s horizon and see America
A sudden desire to be there is set afire
The moon is bright and clear;  in this vast eastern side of the world, it is already autumn
(1)  Located midcoast of Ibaragi prefecture, (2)  Lookout tower height about 100 ft tall

Mr. Toshitsugu Fujimura is the director of Seiai Pre-school. We thought he had very good concepts for teaching kids to be bilingual, and also for the future of Japanese arts. He was a businessman in Japan until his mid-40s, and then decided he wanted to do something more meaningful in his life. He is from Hiroshima. Mr. Fujimura lost many family members due to the radiation of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. He wondered how people could hate another people so much as to drop a horrible bomb on them. He felt that he wanted to build a bridge of understanding between Japan and the U.S. (he says “bridge” numerous times in his interview), and the way he could do this was by teaching American children about Japan through their language and culture.

He went back to college, and got his degree in childhood education. I will call him “Sensei” from here on, since that is the word for “Teacher”. Fujimura Sensei found out that when children are very young, even as infants, their minds are like sponges, and they can absorb an amazing amount of information at this age. He decided to open the Seiai Pre-School to educate these young minds about Japanese culture and language. He has been running the school for 20 years now. It is a total Japanese language immersion school, no English spoken. Fujimura Sensei feels that the children get English at home and from friends outside of the school, so at the Seiai school, only Japanese language is allowed. He also offers cultural activities, such as shuji (calligraphy), odori (Japanese dance, taught by his wife), and shigin, which he teaches himself, because he, himself, is is a Shigin teacher.

We went to the school to film four 4-year-old boys, who could perform the basic Shigin song “Fuji-san” (Mount Fuji). The boys were not all of Japanese descent: there was an African-American boy there, and a half-Caucasian boy, as well. Mrs. Fujimura held up a poster board with the lyrics to “Fuji-san”, all in Japanese characters and “kanji” (Chinese characters), no romanized English, and they shouted the song all together (what energy!). Fujimura Sensei said that at this age, they really can’t sing the song yet, but they can learn the words, how to read them and what the words mean. He teaches the reading of the kanji by showing pictures that look similar to the kanji, which is how it stays in their memory. It was absolutely adorable, and I was so impressed! Unfortunately, Fujimura Sensei could not get the parents to sign the release forms, so we will not be able to use this clip in the film.

Fujimura Sensei also said some interesting things about teaching a child to be bilingual. He said that in order for a child to be bilingual, he/she has to have separate friends who they speak only in English to, or only in Japanese to, or they will not learn the languages well. He/she has to have separate teachers who speak in English, or Japanese, as well. He emphasized often how he wanted to teach his students to speak Japanese “beautifully”, and that this was very important. He also encouraged his own children to be a “bridge” in the world, sending his son to Japan for college. His son now works overseas for a company, I think it is in Europe. Fujimura Sensei also told us that one of his students from 20 years ago has returned, and wants to help continue the school, he is proud to say.

I pulled up a yelp page that wasn’t very flattering about the school This comment seems like it was written by a parent who doesn’t have much Japanese background. When I was there, there were parents who spoke Japanese to the teachers. I have a feeling that although Fujimura Sensei has a degree, the other teachers may not. When my boys were growing up, I had them in a day care run by a Chinese husband and wife, who spoke only Chinese to the kids. When I brought my sons home after a day there, one of my sons said to me “hung gai-gai, mom!” I know some Japanese, but not Chinese, so I didn’t know what he was saying. He was saying that he wanted to go for a walk. I realized he was picking up the Chinese just by listening to Mr. and Mrs. Hung, which is what I wanted. This seems to verify what Fujimura Sensei was saying, and though Seiai might not be a formal pre-school, the kids are learning Japanese there from hearing it all around them. Maybe the parent in this critique was feeling a little “outside”, since she could not speak Japanese herself. But I wish there was a school like this in my area when my kids were growing up.

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