Oakland’s Nippongo Gakuen

The Japanese Language School at the Buddhist Church of Oakland has been an integral part of the offered programs for nearly 120 years. Referenced in the BCO Centennial Book, “Embraced in the Light of the Dharma – 100 years” the beginnings of the Japanese Language school are dated to the fall of 1904. Surviving a split in the Sangha in 1926, the Japanese School continued under the name “Showa Gakuen.” In 1936, a photo of the Showa Gakuen on the steps of the Church shows a student population of nearly 100.

During its existence the Gakuen has dealt with other hardships and world events to which it had to adjust and adapt. In reflecting on the recent 80th anniversary of the Day of Remembrance, World War II and Executive Order 9066 had an enormous impact to the Church and its Japanese Language School. With the forced evacuation of everyone of Japanese descent from the West Coast, the Church and the Gakuen shut its doors.

It wasn’t until 1951 that the Oakland Sangha could reestablish the Nihongo Gakuen. Many of our current members who as children in the 1950’s and 1960’s passed through the doors of the Gakuen, learning their a – i – u – e – o.

Despite dedicated involvement by Mr. & Mrs. Somei Miyauchi, enrollment at the Gakuen waned through the 1980’s and early 1990’s reaching a low point in the late 1990’s when the Gakuen’s enrollment dropped to 6 to 8 students. Under Rev. Seigen Yamaoka’s leadership new life was bred into the Gakuen. With new Gakuen parent leadership, the school again began to flourish. New classes were developed for an adult audience and a robust program in Japanese language instruction was marketed to the community beyond our own Sangha. New teachers were brought to teach these classes, all native Japanese speakers which had always been a focus for the language program. In the 2010’s, Gakuen student enrollment reached new levels (~40) with four dedicated teachers and five (5) classes for both children and adults. By the 2019-2020 school year, enrollment was again trending downward with an enrollment that was closer to 30 students, both adults and children.

In March 2020, COVID 19 became the Gakuen’s biggest obstacle to its existence. In-person classes were shut down and the Gakuen teachers moved instruction into an on-line virtual format. Only through our teachers’ dedicated and creative efforts, classes continued through the final 3 months of the 2020 academic year. With no end in sight for the pandemic in the fall of 2020, classes continued in a virtual format for the 2020-2021 school year; and with the summer of 2021 COVID outbreaks of the Delta variant, the Board decided to stay virtual for the 2021-2022 school year. Despite all efforts by the Gakuen teachers to create a virtual format for language learning, it has been difficult to maintain enrollment at the pre-pandemic levels. Current enrollment is now about half of what it was before the pandemic resulting in financial stress for the operations of the Gakuen.

Not knowing when the Gakuen would be in a position to return to its pre-pandemic approach to instruction, the future in a post-pandemic world has been difficult for the Gakuen Board to address. Strategic decisions about class format and what to plan for has meant that we have maintained the infrastructure of the Gakuen despite the loss of tuition income due to lower student numbers. The financial consequence resulted in the Gakuen accepting a $5,000 long-term loan from the Church Board to cover the deficit in operating expenses from the beginning of the pandemic through December 2021. Further, the Gakuen Board has projected a $2,500 deficit to be incurred through the end of the current academic semester ending in June.

In order to cover this current academic semester deficit the Gakuen Board is launching a Campaign to Support the Nippongo Gakuen. Donations will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $1,000 by Steve & Kathy Terusaki. Donations can be made on-line through the Buddhist Church of Oakland website. In addition, we look forward to the Gakuen participating in other Church fundraising events where a percentage of those proceeds might be dedicated to the Gakuen. It is the Board’s goal to also repay the long-term loan provided by the Church Board.

We ask for your support in helping the Gakuen address the financial impacts that COVID has created. The Board of the Gakuen is dedicated to ensuring that our Japanese language program is sustainable and will continue as an integral part of the programs offered at the Buddhist Church of Oakland. We have a long legacy and we are committed to carrying that legacy forward into the future.

Thank you in advance for your support and generosity. In gassho,

The Gakuen Board,

Ron Nomura, Jon Takagaki, Steve Terusaki, Carol Thunen, Gary Tominaga