The Compleat Education

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The Compleat Education Japan's international schools get high grades for academic standards, diversity, and values

by Nobuya Ochinero

It is a diverse crowd, with students from all over Europe, Asia, Africa and America. The teachers are highly competent (most have at least a Masters in education) and the schools are virtually free of the sorts of substance abuse that plague schools in students' home countries. Testament to the high caliber of these schools is that most of their students, more than 90 percent, go on to four-year European or American universities including such elite institutions as Oxford, Harvard, and MIT. But they offer more than high academic standards, and are also recommended for their diversity, respect for Japanese culture, and inculcation of values.

An international school education comes at a high price. For example, tuition and one-time non-refundable fees add up to ¥2,742,000 ($26,620) for students matriculating at the American School in Japan (ASIJ), in Chofu, 14 kilometers west of Tokyo. That figure exceeds tuition at Harvard, $26,066.

Is the cost worth it? I believe it is. An international school education gives students not only a solid education in English, but also sound values, the tools to think and fond memories of Japan, such that nothing about Japan or the Japanese will ever seem alien or unfamiliar.

Sending the kids to an International school is not an option for many parents in labor-of-love jobs like teaching, journalism and translation; in other words, the moiety of the foreign community not having the expat package that includes school tuition and fees, and membership in, say, the American Club and the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club.

For parents not on the corporate dole the Japanese school system is an option. Japanese public schools have the virtue of being tax supported, ipso facto, virtually free, perhaps the only expense being for school lunch, or kyushoku.

How is the education at Japanese schools? Top quality. Japanese students consistently perform near the top in sciences and math on international comparative tests.

But can mom and dad help junior with his homework? Yes, if they read Japanese--the point being that non-Japanese parents will have trouble plugging into the Japanese school system if they are not literate in Japanese. If they are not, the PTA, parent-teacher conferences, report cards--in short, the interface of guardian and school--will be bumpy.

Needless to say, language poses a formidable barrier to the foreign couple's sending their children to a Japanese school. In fact, it is rare enough that the non-Japanese child who attends a Japanese school is the sort of story beloved of the local press.

Virtually always a foreign parent sending a child to a Japanese school will have a Japanese spouse; that is, the child will be of mixed parentage. This can be difficult for the non-Japanese parent, since he or she may feel estranged from an alien system of education, and acceding to the choice of Japanese school can be tinged with melancholy, as the child will acquire local cultural patterns and the Japanese language as the mother tongue. Any parent lives vicariously through their child, and, if they look back with nostalgia on their own childhood, will try to replicate their early experiences through their child. Further, they will realize their child, immersed in a Japanese environment and the way of kanji, will perhaps never achieve complete facility in their own tongue (English is not taught until the seventh grade); or have a profound feel for their country's ways and culture. Their child will probably live always in Japan. Language is destiny.

Some parents take this in stride. "My son is Japanese," says Rick Sutton, a Canadian who teaches English. He and his Japanese wife placed both their children in Japanese public schools. He believes that in general kids are "resilient" and that the "educational system is not that important." He admits that he wanted to send his children to an international school, yet he believes that the Japanese school experience and the hardships of being different and not fitting in could be positive for his children. Through adversity he wants his children to learn and understand that they are neither Canadian nor Japanese but probably somewhere in-between; he wants his children to grow up being aware of themselves as unique, self-governing individuals who are unbiased and broad-minded. Since this can also be achieved in an international school environment, perhaps the only true advantage to sending a child to a Japanese school is that he or she will master spoken and written Japanese.

Many international schools have religious affiliations, but all are ecumenical in outlook. For example, St. Mary's and Seisen, Roman Catholic boys' and girls' schools, respectively, accept students of a salad of religious backgrounds. While the Catholic schools offer religious education and encourage conversion, religious indoctrination is not their primary purpose. All international schools fundamentally believe that a solid education, in English, within a culturally diverse environment, prepares students to face with courage and dignity the role they will play in the rapidly changing world of today.

Needless to say one of the main tasks of the teachers is to promote a deep understanding between these two diverse cultures, East and the West. For instance, I remember that once every year at St. Mary's we prepared a traditional dish called hoshiyaki, or baked fish and vegetables. Proper preparation of this dish involved risk because the oven needed to be cranked up to a high temperature. Nevertheless, the teachers made this dish every year and made it well. I, for one, acquired a taste for it; I started to enjoy throwing the carcasses loads at a time into the burning oven.

International schools give students a basic grounding in all subject areas including math, art, science, history, and music. The education is innovative yet traditional. I can still remember the fragrance of incense wafting out of the old Catholic Church at St. Maur in Yokohama on the first day of school.

And they give students much more. Being constantly surrounded by children from all countries, races and religions from a young age, students become used to thinking of themselves within a global context and are not afraid to express their individuality within that context. Teachers encourage students to speak their minds; and students will tell you who they are and what they believe in. Most students go on to succeed in their chosen careers. One reason for students' success is that schools set high standards. They are qualified to offer Advanced Placement exams and International Baccalaureate exams (the British equivalent of the AP).

In the diverse environment of an international school not everybody acquires English at the same pace. In fact a lot of students abjure learning English from early on. Most students of mixed Japanese and other parentage speak too much Japanese. I remember this worrying my parents. I recall teachers at St. Joseph's in Yokohama, which I briefly attended, patrolling the grounds, admonishing students to speak English, a linguistic equivalent of Orwell's thought police. Parents who are contemplating sending their child to international schools in Japan should realize this is perhaps their largest flaw. The schools are saturated with things Japanese, from language to food, and this may not be exactly what parents desire.

But this shortcoming is really a trade-off for receiving a traditional education in a non-traditional setting; while the students will be blessed with the opportunity to go to an international school in Japan, to experience and absorb a totally different culture from a very early age, international school students will also learn a little slower. However, teachers do a thorough job of teaching students English, knowledge of which is fast becoming a requisite tool of modern life. Emphasis on language instruction, seen in Yokohama International School's building a language center, truly distinguishes international from local schools, and is the schools' principal attraction for Japanese parents.

While English language education is a point international schools have in common, the schools also have their differences. As I have already mentioned, the Catholic schools, like St. Mary's, St. Maur, Seisen and Sacred Heart, emphasize religion and religious education. Yokohama International School (YIS) is secular, as it was created in the spirit of internationalism, but it does have some ties with Christ Church, the oldest Anglican Church in Japan. Like at St. Mary's or Sacred Heart, YIS inculcate such values as justice, peace and equality and because of this it has always offered a solid education; YIS is one of the oldest international schools in the world, and while the school is small in comparison with St. Mary's or ASIJ, it has played an indispensable and exciting role within Japan's international school community. Meanwhile, ASIJ inculcates American and democratic values; its principal advantage is its rainbow of students including African-Americans, Asian- Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Jewish Americans. This diversity separates ASIJ from international schools with a stronger European presence and makes ASIJ the best school in Japan at which to be educated on an American standard.

On the points of academic quality, diversity, values and bridging East and West, international schools are to be recommended. In their own ways all international schools make a firm commitment to educating children on a Western standard so that when the time comes for them to make a close reexamination of their existence, about who they really are and where they will be going, they will be able to rely on their education and be certain of their identity and their direction in life, no matter what their cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds.

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