Despite the decrease of local Japanese speakers, young students learning Japanese in Hawaii are gaining bilingual skills and appreciating the culture that shaped the islands in earlier years.
On a daily basis after school, students came to the Honpa Hongwanji Hilo Betsuin and gathered in a second floor classroom for Japanese Language class. They painted “kanji” on sheets of paper, and wrote “hiragana” on chalkboards. Each day at the end of the class, they thanked their sensei by bowing and saying “Arigato gozaimasu.”
In Hilo, these are some of the youngest people learning Japanese, and many students have at least one parent who has Japanese ancestry. Many of their parents don’t know Japanese, so their language skills shown at their graduation ceremony had to be translated into English.
Japanese used to be the most common language spoken at home in Hawaii aside from English. 80,000 Japanese speakers lived in Hawaii in 1980. By 2014 that number had fallen to 45,000.