Japan Bowl champs

Japan Bowl champs

Selene Rubino

On April 9, three students placed first in a national Japanese competition

Junior Svadharma Keerthi is the odd one out in her Japan Bowl team. Not only is she the only junior, but she is also not taking AP Japanese or of East Asian descent.
"I remember when I was going to turn in my forms in middle school, my parents were adamant that I [take] Spanish or French," Keerthi said. "Like, Japanese? Where are you going to use that in America?"

Priscilla Chan, Svadharma Keerthi, and Emily Sheng pose in front of their trophy. Photo courtesy of Sherry Jin.

It's a lucky thing that Keerthi chose Japanese, because together with seniors Priscilla Chan and  Emily Sheng, the MVHS level four team won first place at the 2010 Japan Bowl. Though the national-level win is impressive, what is perhaps more extraordinary is the team's dedication and enthusiasm for Japanese.
Japan Bowl is a Japanese language and culture competition held in Washington, D.C., each year, with high school students from around the country flying in to compete. Bay Area schools are powerhouses at Japan Bowl, with MVHS and Lynbrook High School holding their own against perennial favorites like Stuyvesant High School in New York.
But before all the fame and glory, the tale of MVHS's rise began in the most prosaic of places: a classroom, before summer break.
It is Japanese teacher Keiko Howard's classroom, and apart from the large stash of trophies in the corner, it looks much like any other language classroom. Howard, equally unassuming, glides over the fact that she has led students to success in Japan Bowl for many years.
"It's really open to anyone who wants to try," Howard said. "I don't choose the top students. They have to pay their own expenses, they have to study, and if they are busy for other subjects, then it's not for them."
After holding an informational meeting in late May, interested students formed teams and began preparing for the competition by emailing Japanese documents and information to one another. So it isn't surprising that the students who gather in A201 are real zealots, willing to sacrifice time over summer vacation.
Senior Priscilla Chan is one of these zealots. Outspoken and ambitious, she often explains the team strategies and study methods. On the side, she pitches Japanese classes with the familiarity born out of experience as president of the Japanese National Honor Society chapter at MVHS.   
"We really encourage people to take Japanese because it's fun," Chan said. "I don't know about the other language classes, but from what I've heard, Spanish apparently sounds boring. That's not what I think but you know, some people don't enjoy their language classes as much as we do."
Whether or not that holds true, the team returned from summer break chock full of Japanese trivia and culture. Howard held practice rounds using PowerPoints and onomatopoeia sentence construction, as they all waited for April 8, the day Japan Bowl would start. Finally, over spring break, they traveled to Washington, D.C.
The three levels of the Japan Bowl (levels 2, 3 and 4) correspond to the ability levels of participants, four being the highest. Each level competes in a separate pool, but covers similar material, starting with a language and culture quiz. After competing in the open round, the teams move on to an oral round testing each member's speaking abilities.
Speaking and listening are senior Emily Sheng's areas of interest. The third member of the level four Japan Bowl team, Sheng was initially intrigued by Japanese music.
"I just like the songs a lot more [than English songs]," Sheng said. "So then I really wanted know what they were singing about, so then I wanted to know the lyrics and so I learned Japanese."
Sheng is the quietest member of the team, often choosing to let the other two members do the explaining while listening on the side. She balances out their more overt enthusiasm: whereas Keerthi remembers nearly missing the bus back to the hotel on their first night in Washington D.C., Sheng remembers the study session that preceded it. 
After a day of competition on April 9, the team learned that they were one of only three teams to pass to the final round of Japan Bowl. While other students were relaxing and watching cultural shows, Chan, Keerthi and Sheng studied furiously, pre-writing sentences to use in the final.
The final consisted of two sections. The first, a Jeopardy-style PowerPoint, was similar to the open round, with the addition of a time limit. The second, individual section, required team members to create a sentence around Japanese onomatopoeia in 60 seconds.
The MVHS team honed in on competition, using tactics such as buzzing in before the questions were finished and guessing the answers when 80 percent sure. At the end of the round, they felt secure in their win.
"We kind of knew we won because we answered every question," Keerthi said. "So we were just waiting for [the results to be released]."
As a reward for winning, all three team members are going on an all-expense paid 10-day vacation to Japan over summer break. In addition to visiting cities like Tokyo and Hiroshima, they will meet current Japanese college students.

"As I learned [Japanese] more and more and more I started to love it more," Chan said. "I have no reason to stop learning it now."