CCA student makes an impact at International Japanese Speech Contest

Zane Adlam with his family and support team after placing third in the International High School Japanese Speech Contest.

Canyon Crest Academy senior Zane Adlam spent part of his summer in Japan, enjoying a bit of instant fame after taking home the Best Audience Award (third place) at the International High School Japanese Speech Contest.

At the July 25 contest in Matsuyama, Zane was the only American, one of 15 students from around the world all speaking in their non-native Japanese. Zane won the opportunity to compete internationally after taking first place at the All-USA High School Japanese Speech Contest held on May 25 at UC Irvine.

Zane became something of a celebrity in Japan, where a local television crew followed him around as he participated in contest activities, tagging along as he went to his host family’s home and capturing him singing a Japanese song and some John Denver while strumming his guitar.

“He was very popular in Japan, it was really cute because all the schoolgirls wanted to take photos with him,” said Zane’s AP Japanese teacher Sato Umabe, who traveled to Japan to support Zane at the contest.

Zane Adlam with his high school Japanese teachers Sato Umabe (Torrey Pines) and Don Quinn (Canyon Crest Academy).

Zane considers himself first and foremost a musician—he plays guitar, piano, drums and bass and is part of the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory. He started out as a somewhat reluctant Japanese student but continued on in his studies due to a promise made to his grandma, which became the topic of his winning speech.

His speech touched people’s hearts as he reflected on how his motivation to learn the language became greater after his grandmother, Yuriko Okugawa Frantz, was diagnosed with cancer when he was in the eighth grade.

“One of the last things she said to me was to keep learning Japanese,” Zane said. “I kept my promise to my grandma, even though I didn’t want to at first…I still wish that I could have spoken to her in Japanese, but now even though she is not here, I feel a strong connection to her after learning her native language.”

Zane is the only fluent Japanese speaker in his family. His mother, Lisa, who is half-Japanese, always regretted not learning her mother’s native language. As Lisa always had that regret, she enrolled Zane at a young age in two-hour classes every Friday at the Vista Buddhist Temple.

Thanks to the introductory classes, when Zane was at his grandparents’ house, he could sing in Japanese and say “very basic things” but he was never truly able to converse with his grandma before she passed away.

As he prepared to go to high school at Canyon Crest, Lisa encouraged him to continue on with his studies and keep his promise.

“I begged him to try it just for one year. He always wanted to quit the Friday classes but I just crossed my fingers and hoped he liked it better in high school,” Lisa said.

At CCA, Zane said he was lucky to find teacher Don Quinn in Japanese 1, a fellow musician and inspirational teacher who made the language fun. Through Quinn, he learned to love the language and worked his way through Japanese 3 at CCA before moving into AP Japanese at Torrey Pines with Umabe.

“My AP class is very rigid, there are quite a few native speakers in class too. Zane was very serious about learning, he showed passion and commitment,” Umabe said, of the class which aims for a mastery in the language and three writing systems. “He has very good memorization, probably because of music. I’ve found that students who are talented in language are also talented in music.”

Umabe has taught Japanese 1-3 and AP classes at Torrey Pines for 15 years. In order for the schools to continue offering the AP class, CCA students like Zane travel to Torrey Pines to take a combined class every other day from 7:40 a.m. to 9:20 a.m.

Umabe’s teaching style is to give students the opportunity to use the skills and passions to explore the language inside and outside of the classrooms. Her students participate in J-CAP (Japanese Cultural Academic Proficient) competitions and Japan Bowl, Japanese Film Festival and enrichment programs at local elementary schools. Students who are members of the Japanese National Honor Society participate in community service projects, such as building a zen garden outside of Umabe’s classroom.

Zane Adlam and his grandfather, holding a photo of Zane and his grandmother.

Umabe has a pretty successful track record at the All-USA High School Japanese Speech Contest —her students won the contest in 2009 and 2013. The 2013 winner, Torrey Pines student Dacoda Strack, also went on to compete at the international level, placing third.

One day in class this spring, she offered up participation in the contest to her students. She had one taker but then asked: “What about you, Zane?”

To Umabe and even Zane’s surprise, he said yes. Umabe said while his Japanese was “excellent,” he had never participated in the J-CAP or Japan Bowl competitions.

Zane said he remembers saying that the speech contest “seems like a lot of work” but he agreed to do it as he figured his mom would eventually hear about the contest and ask why he hadn’t participated.

Umabe met with Zane after school to go over potential topics and structure of a speech—Zane couldn’t take the topic of music as it was taken, so instead Umabe gave him the prompt of “Why are you taking Japanese?”

The answer proved to be moving, “It clicked when I was working with him, when I realized that it was bigger than a just a speech contest,” Umabe said. “It really was his passion.”

Zane, who has never participated in any kind of public speaking in his native language, found himself delivering a five-minute speech in Japanese at the All-USA High School Japanese Speech Contest and surprisingly won the whole contest.

Winning the contest made him eligible to apply for the International competition, in which he was selected as one of 16 competitors from Poland, England, Cambodia, Russia, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brazil, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Panama, Canada and Korea. (A New Zealand competitor was unable to attend.)

Japanese was the common language that connected the international students.

“It was a little strange coming into my room at the hostel and being greeted by a Panamanian speaking to me in Japanese,” Zane said.

Zane said although the competition was strong, he was still able to pull out in the top three, “Everybody there had studied Japanese seriously since elementary school, I’ve really only had three years where I was seriously exposed to the language,” he said.

The contest was just one part of the experience, which lasted from July 20-Aug. 2. The contestants participated in classes at Waseda University in Tokyo and activities to learn about each other’s cultures. Many students said that watching anime was useful in helping them learn the language—Zane among them. “There are definitely good and bad parts,” Zane said, noting the good part is learning some expressions and vocabulary from the Japanese people who voice the characters but it isn’t great to help with learning conversational Japanese.

The bulk of the activities were in Matsuyama, located on the island of Shikoku a one-hour plane ride from Tokyo. The TV station captured his time interacting with his host family in Matsuyama, eating traditional Japanese dishes like okonomiyaki and giving him gifts such as a robe and sandals.

Zane’s favorite activity was when the students got to ride bicycles and spend the day at the beach. On one night, they had a talent show, complete with karaoke. Zane took to the stage with his guitar and sang crowd-pleasers such as Frank Sinatra’s “Fly me to the Moon,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Hikari no Hashi wo Koete” (Cross the Bridge of Light), a song used as the ending theme for the animated show “Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu” (Legend of the Galactic Heroes).

While the contest paid for all of the students’ travel and stay, Zane’s family and Umabe traveled separately to see him participate in the contest, in front of an auditorium full of Japanese students. Zane gave his speech with a photo of himself and his grandma in his jacket pocket.

“I think it’s amazing,” Lisa said of Zane’s accomplishments. “We all wish my mom could see him.”

The speech contest was equally moving for Umabe.

“As a Japanese native, this means a lot to me to see to see a boy like him learn the language and become a bridge between the two countries,” Umabe said.

Umabe said the experience also spoke to the power of family—sometimes she even heard Zane’s grandma’s voice in her own head, reinforcing her responsibility as teacher and coach. She was touched to see the pride on Zane’s 83-year-old grandfather’s face after Zane’s speech.

“I’m pleased to have been a part of it and to be a witness,” Umabe said. “It makes me happy about my job.”