For many students who take a foreign language, the highest authority they have to answer to is their teacher.
But for some of the 220 students who study Japanese at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, Monday offered an opportunity to show their skills for an expert guest: Japan's ambassador to the United States
Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki and his wife, Yoriko, were accompanied by Takahisa Murakami, Counselor of Education for the Japanese Embassy, and Takayuki Iriya, Fujisaki's first secretary, to sample Japanese educational offerings at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville.
"It's very important to learn language at a young age," Fujisaki said, "It's encouraging that a lot of kids here speak Japanese. I think that will be a great bridge in the future."
The ambassador visited a Japanese class in each of St. Paul's three schools: the Upper, Middle and Lower schools.
In the Lower School class, taught by Kaoru Kimura, he observed and listened as students pieced together stories involving various people going all over the world to buy things, with the students showing off their versatility for the ambassador.
Fujisaki spoke from the heart when he wrote the Japanese symbol for "friend" on the white board and expressed his gratitude for America's relief and recovery assistance after the March earthquake and tsunami.
As a token of his appreciation, the ambassador gave the students bracelets that read "gratitude, friendship, bond."
In the Upper School, after students conducted a question and answer session with him, the ambassador engaged the high school students in conversation and quizzed them about their lives.
Later, at Brooklandwood Mansion on the school grounds, Fujisaki took part in a meal prepared by three seniors who are in the school's highest Japanese class — Nate Shade, 17, of Towson; Laurnie Wilson, 17, of Bel Air; and William Vieth, 18, of Reisterstown.
"It was pretty incredible to have him here," Shade said.
Wilson said she was surprised at how easy the ambassador was to talk to, while Vieth said he enjoyed the chance not only to test his Japanese with a real citizen, but the country's ambassador.
School Headmaster Tom Reid said both Ambassador Fujisaki and his wife praised students for how well they spoke the language.
"As headmaster, the most encouraging part was how complimentary they were of the students' Japanese at all levels," he said.
The students do get the chance to speak with Japanese natives frequently — and not only with teachers.
Through an exchange program with Gakushuin School in Tokyo, St. Paul's sends students to Japan for three-week and four-month stretches, while two students from Gakushuin spend the entire school year at St. Paul's.
Shade was one of many St. Paul's students to make the trip to Japan through the program. While there, he lived with the family of a student named Reo Hara, who later decided to stay at St. Paul's to complete his high school education after his own exchange was over.
Hara, now a senior, was part of the Crusader's MIAA B Conference soccer championship this fall. He said soccer, which he hopes will help him get into an American college, was a main reason for staying in America when his exchange was done — that and his "great relationship" with teachers.
Hara, Haruki Kahata, and Ko Ueno — the school's three students from Gakushuin, also met with the ambassador during the lunch.
The ambassador's visit was born out of one student and her mother's passion for Japan. Last summer, second-grader Sydney Johnson and her mom, Carolyn, both of Baldwin, took a trip to the Japanese embassy with Kimura, where they met the ambassador and told him of the various Japanese initiatives at St. Paul.
In addition to offering Japanese language classes and the exchange program with Gakushuin, St. Paul's School has hosted a Japanese high school lacrosse team for an exhibition game, and sent a group of students to an international sustainable energy conference in Hawaii that included students from China, Japan, Jordan and Singapore.
In total, the extracurricular programs, coupled with intensive study of the language, have fostered a long-term interest in the language.
Shade and Vieth both hope to continue to utilize their language skills in college and, later, in the business world.
Wilson, on the other hand, knows she'll keep the language with her wherever she goes.
"I'm not really sure where the language can take me, but I hope to use it some day," she said. "When you've been using it for so long, it seems silly not to continue."