Japan’s stellar speller ready for global contest

by Minoru Matsutani

Staff Writer

Natural learner Haruka Masuda’s secret is reading, reading and reading.

The 12-year-old champion of The 3rd Japan Times Spelling Bee in March is set for the global stage, where she will compete with 277 other contestants from the United States and other countries in the annual 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Maryland, from May 29 to 31.

“I am kind of nervous, whether my preparation is enough,” the first-year student at Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen Makuhari Junior and Senior High School said recently in a coffee shop near JR Kaihin-Makuhari Station in Chiba.

Competing with spellers who won their local contests is, “to be honest, frightening,” she said.

Masuda studies for the spelling contest every day, but her methods are nothing out of the ordinary: She uses electronic and paper dictionaries, learns suffixes and prefixes and tries to memorize difficult words.

Her spelling ability has perhaps been nurtured by frequent encounters with the printed word — far more frequent than most people her age.

“I sometimes read two books a day. I read more than 300 (English) books a year,” she says calmly, as if it isn’t a big deal.

One of her favorites is “Gone with the Wind,” she says, adding the only comic she reads is “Garfield” and watches TV no more than an hour a week.

“I don’t read Japanese books. Only about six a year,” she adds.

Born to Japanese parents in the Philippines, she has spent more than half her life outside Japan — three years in the Philippines and five in Thailand. She can speak English, Japanese and a bit of Thai. She cannot speak Tagalog, she says.

She came to love reading because Bangkok, where she lived from ages 3 to 8 attending an international school, had no other entertainment.

“I don’t understand Thai, so I didn’t watch TV. When I visited my friend, traffic was often heavy and I would read in the car.”

She was reading a lot of English books then because “Japanese books were expensive there,” says her mother, Junko.

Her family came back to Japan in 2008 and she attended a public school for a year.

Her first encounter with Japanese-only education “wasn’t too difficult,” Masuda says.

“Writing was difficult but speaking was OK.”

In 2009 she moved on to the Makuhari International School in the city of Chiba. Last month she started at Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen Makuhari Junior and Senior High School, also in Chiba, after passing the entrance examination.

The test included listening and reading comprehension, grammar and writing an essay in English, and undergoing an interview in English and Japanese.

“Yeah, it was difficult,” she says. “The most difficult part was the Japanese interview.”

She is learning mainly in Japanese at her current school.

She and her mother were set to leave Thursday for the big contest. Her father, who works for a major trading company, will join them in time for the Round One Test on May 29, when the 278 contestants will take an electronic test.

They will take to the stage on May 30 and 31. The ESPN sports channel will broadcast both days.

Of the 278 spellers, Masuda is the only Japanese. Most are Americans and others are from China, Italy, Ghana, Jamaica, South Korea and New Zealand.

The contestants will spell their words out loud. They are allowed to request a definition, the language of origin, an alternate pronunciation and hear the word used in a sentence.

Masuda defeated 35 contestants in The Japan Times Spelling Bee on March 11. Her final word was “ignominious” after successfully spelling “shoddiness,” “menagerie,” “veracity,” “moratorium” and “quisling.”