CAMP ZAMA, Japan (July 26, 2019) -- Men and women slowly trickle into a classroom and take their seats. They hail from places as diverse as the United States, Mexico, Palau, American Samoa and Germany. But they are all here this evening for the same reason: to improve their Japanese language skills.

They are all students at the beginners' Japanese class that Yumiko Mizushima, a volunteer Japanese instructor with Camp Zama's Army Community Service, hosts for an hour every Wednesday at the Religious Education Center here.

Mizushima said an average of 10 to 15 participants show up to the class weekly, including Soldiers, spouses and civilian employees.

Mizushima began teaching the class at Camp Zama about nine years ago. Prior to that, she had been taking English lessons from a Camp Zama resident. She enjoyed it so much that she wanted to offer those on the installation the same engaging learning experience she had gotten.

"Teaching here is my way of giving back to the community," said Mizushima.

When she began teaching, Mizushima said she soon realized she had no idea how to explain to first-time learners the many complex rules of Japanese grammar--rules that, to a native speaker like her, were second-nature. So she began researching things like Japan's history, culture, customs and seasonal events as a way to help her better connect with her students.

"Teaching is learning," said Mizushima. "It [gave] me an opportunity to relearn what I thought I knew."

Mizushima said she wants her students to feel the same joy of communicating directly with others in a different language that she felt when she was finally able to communicate in English.

"I want them to enjoy the opportunity to have conversations with Japanese people during the time they live here," said Mizushima. "I want to help them."

Tami Blackman, who has been coming to the classes for five years, said she has recently begun to feel more comfortable speaking to people in Japanese. Blackman said loves to shop at local stores, so the phrases and vocabulary she has learned in the class help her when asking questions or talking to employees.

"[Knowing some Japanese] makes it much nicer to go out in public and mingle," said Blackman. "I've noticed the difference between trying to communicate with Japanese and knowing [a few words] as opposed to not knowing any. You get treated a little more attentively and engagingly."

Blackman said one of her favorite moments is when she goes to a restaurant and is able to compliment the staff on the meal, because "their face lights up."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Zachary Rubino, assigned to U.S. Army Aviation Battalion Japan, who has been attending the class for one year, calls Mizushima "a good teacher." He said he has learned from her useful phrases that can be used both on and off duty.

Rubino works with Japanese civilian employees and members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force on a daily basis. And although his co-workers and counterparts speak English very well, Rubino said knowing how to say even just a few words or phrases in Japanese shows them he is putting an effort toward speaking their language as well.

Rubino said he regularly has the chance to use Japanese in everyday situations, such as going to a convenience store or taking the train. Being stationed in Japan is "a lucky experience," Rubino said, so those who get the opportunity owe it to themselves to learn about their host country.

"Getting around and going out to explore Japan is extraordinary," said Rubino. "Being savvy on the language will help make the experience that much better. It's a free class, so it's a waste of an opportunity if you don't go."

Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Hirata, who recently began attending the class, said he is grateful that such a resource is available for the Camp Zama community. It also means Hirata, who is part Japanese, has "no more excuse not to learn" the language. Like Rubino, Hirata also works closely with Japanese civilians and members of the JGSDF

"I've always wanted to learn my native tongue," said Hirata, assigned to U.S. Army Garrison Japan. "It's a wonderful language to learn. This class has been worth it."