The 2006 Michigan Japanese Quiz Bowl, organized by the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies and held on March 18 on the U-M campus, broke attendance records with more than 300 elementary, middle, and high school student participants from 22 schools throughout the Detroit area, Battle Creek, Lansing, and Flint. What is the Michigan Japanese Quiz Bowl and why is it so successful?

    The Michigan Japanese Quiz Bowl (MJQB) began as a qualifying competition for the National Japan Bowl, created in 1993 to test the Japanese language ability of high school students across the country and promote the study of Japanese. Since then, Michigan has expanded the scope of the Japan Bowl, including elementary and middle school students to develop interest in Japanese and Japan at earlier ages. Now the MJQB focuses less on being a qualifying event for the national competition and more on providing an opportunity for K-12 students to meet and take part in friendly, yet very serious, competition.

    Each year’s MJQB begins early on a Saturday with an opening ceremony where participants and visitors are welcomed, and receive a greeting from the Japanese Consulate in Detroit before the competitors proceed to the first round. Closed to spectators, the morning’s preliminary competition consists of three rounds of matches at four different levels. Responding to questions about language and culture, the teams compete against each other to answer the most questions correctly and earn points. University-level Japanese language instructors and other Japanese experts judge the matches; university-level Japanese language students act as timekeepers and scorekeepers. Throughout the morning, each four-person team competes against three other teams at comparable levels. At the end of the preliminary rounds, the points are tallied and the two teams in each level with the highest points are announced. After lunch, those teams take part in the final competition in front of their peers, families, and the public. At the conclusion of the finals, the award ceremony is arranged while performers entertain the audience. Past entertainment has included performances by the White Pine Glee Club (a choral group composed of Japanese businessmen from southeast Michigan), as well as a resident Butoh dance artist. The MJQB concludes with an award ceremony in which the first and second place teams in each division accept trophies for their schools, as well as medals and small gifts for each team member.

    The quiz bowl is accompanied by Japanese cultural activities to educate and entertain the students and guests. In the past, these activities have included tea ceremonies, flower arranging, koto and shakuhachi music, sushi-making, kimono-wearing, calligraphy, origami, and even DDR (Dance-Dance Revolution). In 2006, CJS and U-M’s Japan Student Association (JSA) collaborated to hold the MJQB on the same day as JSA’s annual Japan Culture Festival. This allowed CJS to focus on the competitive portion of the event and increased attendance at JSA’s festival.

    It takes considerable effort by CJS and JTAM staff, university Japanese instructors and students, and many volunteers to run the MJQB, but organizers are convinced it is time well spent. Japanese teachers report that the MJQB increases their students’ motivation in class and improves their language skills; leads to expanded support for Japanese language educators and programs; and creates mutually beneficial connections among Japanese teachers and between K-12 schools and universities. A Japanese teacher and MJQB coach from Lansing’s Everett High School wrote, “Every year I have students who not only look forward to going to the event, they look forward to studying for it! It is one of the things that motivate my students to persevere with their studies.” An elementary teacher from the Steppingstone School in Farmington Hills stated, “By March, students have been in class for six months and they get complacent or start losing their drive to learn the language....The quiz bowl inspires them to continue their learning.”

    The MJQB also benefits Japanese teachers and strengthens language programs. In Garden City Public Schools, students are required to study a language only up until grade six. In the middle schools, where language study is optional, Japanese is more popular and in higher demand than Spanish. Garden City’s elementary Japanese teacher attributes this demand to the MJQB, saying that it “encourages kids to continue with Japanese because they have heard about how great this event is and they want to take part in it.” Additionally, teachers in other districts report greater support for Japanese language programs from parents when they see how enthusiastic the students are about the MJQB and learning Japanese.

    Finally, valuable connections are forged through the organization of an outreach event like the MJQB. Doors are opened for Japanese teachers of all levels to interact, collaborate, and share information. The MJQB serves to promote Japanese studies programs at universities by involving university Japanese instructors who volunteer as judges. This is evident by the growing number of former MJQB participants who return as volunteers from their university Japanese classes. When asked how they selected their university, most state that they were influenced by meeting university Japanese instructors at the MJQB and by simply being on the host institution’s campus.

    Jane Ozanich is program associate at the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan International Institute.