Students from international schools across the country competed Saturday in Japan’s first-ever Spelling Bee, battling to correctly spell English words and book a ticket to the finals in the United States.

Sonia Ann Schlesinger, 13, emerged as the winner among the 55 contestants aged 6 to 14 from 28 international and U.S. military base schools.

The competition was hosted by The Japan Times under authorization from E.W. Scripps Co., which organizes the annual National Spelling Bee contest in Washington, D.C.

“I’m really happy because this is what I love to do,” said Schlesinger, an American who goes to Nishimachi International School in Tokyo. She said she often studied online to prepare for the competition.

Schlesinger will now take part in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in June. “I’m so excited about going to the U.S.,” she said.

The winning word Schlesinger spelled correctly in the final round was “Croesus,” which means a very rich man.

The runnerup was Sofie Yui Kanematsu, a 14-year-old at Hiroo Gakuen in Tokyo, whose parents are Singaporean and Japanese.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos attended the award ceremony and congratulated the winner.

“I watch the national competitions every year,” the ambassador said, referring to the National Spelling Bee in the U.S. “I’m totally blown away by what these students accomplished.”

In the U.S., the Spelling Bee is a well-known contest in which young participants, called “spellers,” compete to spell words correctly.

The rules are simple. After a “pronouncer” says a word, contestants have to spell the word out loud within a set time period. They are allowed to request a definition, sentence, part of speech, language of origin and alternate pronunciation.

But, once they’ve begun, the spellers cannot go back and start spelling the word again. Contestants are eliminated when they get a word wrong.

Saturday’s competition grew more tense as participants gradually fell by the wayside.

Many said they felt extremely nervous in front of a large audience.

“It was nerve-racking,” said Non Kuramoto, a 14-year-old student at Hiroo Gakuen. “At first I thought I got (the word) wrong, so I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ ” she said. Runnerup Kanematsu, her classmate, agreed. “It was really scary. I was nervous,” she said.

But they said studying for the competition after school with a teacher was fun. “There were words that I usually don’t come across, like German-origin words,” said Kuramoto. “Those are really interesting, and some of the definitions were also really funny.”

Keerti Palanisamy, who goes to K International School, also said she felt nervous.

“But I realized I knew most of the words I already studied, so I relaxed later,” she said.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this big a deal until our names came out in the newspapers, so I took it easy. But then, last week I studied two hours a day,” said the 12-year-old Indian student, who made it to the sixth round.

The National Spelling Bee in the U.S. first began in 1925 with nine contestants in Washington, D.C., according to Scripps.

Its popularity has grown since then, and the participants doubled between 1980 and 1990. In recent years, the event has become even more prestigious and popular, partly due to prime-time media coverage.

Scripps states that its purpose is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies and develop correct English usage.

The 2009 U.S. final included international participants from Canada, China, South Korea, Jamaica and New Zealand, among other countries.

The Japan Times Bee was supported by the Embassy of the United States, the America-Japan Society, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and Stars & Stripes.

The event was sponsored by Costco Wholesale Japan Inc., Temple University Japan Campus, Asian Tigers Japan, CACTUS Education and To the Moon and Back.

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