Students in Ballico embrace Japanese culture

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJuly 5, 2013 

— Emiko Tanioka wore an apron as she helped dozens of students roll balls of mochi, a traditional Japanese rice cake, the way she learned as a child.

"You want to have a closeness to the things of the past," the 73-year-old Merced resident said. "You want to know those things so you can share them with the people that are coming up."

About 55 children learned traditional Japanese arts all week at Ballico Elementary School during Tomodachi Gakko, or Friendship School.

Tanioka, who farms the land where her parents grew almonds and tomatoes, was one of several volunteers providing classes.

Students also learned simple sounds and words in Japanese, made traditional art with paper and practiced the taiko drum. The paper took shape through folding, dyeing and cutting, while taiko drums let out booming notes as children struck them with theatrical hand motions.

Nicole Isozaki, one of the week's directors, said Ballico, Cortez and Livingston, as well as parts of Merced and Turlock, have a history of Japanese-American farmers.

The highlight of Wednesday's lessons was the mochi process. One child played the taiko drum while the others took turns pounding the paste with a mallet.

"We make it usually around Christmastime," Isozaki said, adding that nowadays machines do the pounding.

Co-director Monica Nishihara said many children come to the area yearly to visit grandparents during the Fourth of July holiday — some from as far as Oregon. Gakko is in its 29th year.

History lessons are a large part of the week, and the older children get lessons about the Japanese internment during World War II.

Teacher Sandra Sano said her parents, aunts and grandparents were in internment camps.

"My father-in-law was in the 442nd," she said, about the Army unit. "(It) was made up of Japanese-Americans who had their families in the camps, but yet they were drafted off."

About 110,000 Japanese-Americans were held in 10 internment camps on the West Coast from May 1942 to January 1945.

Gakko culminates Saturday with an Obon festival, featuring Obon dancing, cultural presentations, music and more at 7 p.m. at Cortez Buddhist Church on Cortez Avenue, between Linwood Road and Santa Fe Drive, in the Ballico-Cortez area.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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