Oldest Japanese Language School in the Continental USA marks Its 120th Year in 2022

Japan Asia

The Seattle Japanese Language School (SJLS) is the oldest operating Japanese language school on the mainland United States with over one hundred years of history. The school was founded in 1902 with a mission to provide language, historical and cultural education, and promote Japanese culture to the diaspora in the United States. They have maintained their core mission in their operations while adapting to changes within the community.

The Seattle Japanese Language School originally started with only four students. However, it quickly welcomed more students in its early years to serve the community. Their activities not only included linguistics and culture, but also addressed the social inequality issues faced by the Japanese community in the United States at the time. For example, Japanese Americans were not able to apply for American citizenship and were not allowed to own property. During this time, SJLU built a space for Japanese American children who were born in the United States to have opportunities to learn their cultural heritage and the value of Japanese culture as Japanese Americans. These activities also built a connection back to Japan for those who eventually decided to move back.

Before World War II, the Seattle Japanese Language School began to accommodate more students and grew into a bigger school. However, this expansion ended during World War II and the school was forced to cease operations. School facilities were utilized for training by the US Army Air Corps during WWII and temporarily used as housing after WWII.

When the school reopened, it began teaching Japanese as a second language, seeking to enrich understanding of Japanese culture to all Americans. Today, there are approximately 200 students and 10 teachers at SJLS. According to the Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle, the Japanese community has steadily grown over the past 50 years and currently about 35,000 Japanese Americans live in this state. When it began, most students were Japanese American, but today’s school welcomes anyone interested in learning about Japanese language and culture. Seattle Japanese Language School at its core mission aims to be a community gathering space to share Japanese and Japanese American culture and heritage.

Alongside the Seattle Japanese Language School, the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington (JCCCW) runs its operation to connect communities and generations through Japanese culture and language. Through their events and activities, they strive to be the center where people can come together to learn, share, and engage with Japanese culture.

These activities include celebrations of Japanese festivals, holidays, and cultural activities. The center also engages distinguished speakers to share stories, and display Japanese art and books to educate the public about the Japanese and Japanese American community in the Seattle area.

The center provides unique and impactful opportunities open to the public through art museums, a Japanese language library, a Japanese garden, and community classes. Such a variety of spaces and events open doors for many more people to learn about Japanese culture, recognize Japan matters for America, and celebrate Japanese Americans in the United States.

Dolgorjav Jigmedsenge is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington DC. She recently obtained her MPS degree at Cornell University with a minor in International Development and Development Economics