Tamagawa Gakuen is now a pleasant, leafy suburb of Tokyo centered around the campus of its namesake, a leading university. But when I commuted to elementary school there in the 1930s, the university had not been built and the school's campus sprawled across rolling hills looking down on terraced rice fields. It was an hour and a half by train from my home. The circumstances of my enrollment were somewhat unusual.
I had spent five blissful years at the American School In Japan. But my parents knew that even if I went to college in America, as they hoped, I needed at least a few years of education in my native language and literature.
They had heard of Tamagawa Gakuen and its charismatic founder, Kuniyoshi Obara. He had been much influenced by the ideas of American educator John Dewey and had started a progressive school. The emphasis was on the individual, and on educating the whole man. Pupils studied at their own pace and were taught a manual skill as well as academics. You could be a farmer, a carpenter, or a printer. The school had its own farm and workshops.
My parents wanted to enroll me in Tamagawa Gakuen's middle school, but there was a catch. It was late February, and the Japanese school year began in April. I had no Japanese primary-school certificate qualifying me to enter the middle school.
Mr. Obara made a generous suggestion to my parents. "Enroll your son in our primary school," he said. "We'll give him a certificate, and in April, he can start middle school."
On March 1, I became a sixth-grader at Tamagawa Gakuen primary school. A week later, I was duly graduated, attending the ceremony in the school chapel and sharing a congratulatory lunch of sekihan - glutinous rice cooked with red beans, the indispensable accompaniment of any celebration in Japan.
Classes at the American School had been small - 20 or so to a class. At Tamagawa, they were even smaller. Perhaps 12 boys and girls were in my graduating class. And I did not suffer the trauma of going from an open, carefree American classroom to a tightly disciplined Japanese one.
Obara Sensei, as we called him (sensei being a term of respect for teachers), was an iconoclast. When most teachers and certainly school principals wore sober suits and ties, Mr. Obara sported a white open-necked, short-sleeved shirt, worn untucked. The Tamagawa shirt, he told us, had the dignity of a coat and the comfort of a shirt. A handsome, broad-faced man with lightly graying hair, he had a deep, resonant voice. He could hold us spellbound for discourses of an hour or more.
"Just imagine," he would say. "To get into the right university, you have to get into the right high school. To get into the right high school, you have to get into the right middle school. And so on, all the way down to kindergarten!
"Exams, exams, exams!" he cried. "When I see pale-faced primary-school children commuting to cram schools at night so they can pass the exams for the right middle school, I feel so sorry for them!" That was some 60 years ago, but everything Obara Sensei said about cramming is as true today as it was then. Now you even have to go to the right nursery school to get into the right kindergarten.
"We educate the whole man," Obara Sensei went on. "Your hands and your body as well as your mind. We want you to experience the joy of planting seeds and seeing them come to harvest. We want you to travel - in Japan and overseas - and get to know the world."
He was as good as his word. The greatest bonus I received from my one week as a sixth-grader was to participate in the post-graduation trip - a 12-day journey to some of Japan's most historic sites, including the island-studded Inland Sea, Fukuoka. There, the Japanese repelled Mongol invaders in the 13th century. Kagoshima was key in the fight to overthrow the feudal rule of the shogun. We visited this village at Japan's southernmost tip and climbed legendary Kirishima, the mountaintop on which the Sun Goddess's grandson supposedly descended to found Japan.
We traveled by train and boat. When the grown-ups we met were nice to us, we sang to them, in four-part harmony, one of Mr. Obara's favorite hymns: a Japanese version of "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." I didn't learn the English words until much later and had no idea it was a Christian hymn. The version we sang didn't mention meeting again "at Jesus' feet," which made it more universal.
In our voyage through the Inland Sea, we stopped near Yashima, where a beautiful woman with the fleeing Taira dared a warrior of the pursuing Minamoto forces to shoot at the fan she held out on the gently rocking boat. We also passed Dannoura, where the Taira made their last stand. The 12th-century Minamoto-Taira war is a defining episode in Japanese feudal history, as the victorious Minamoto founded the system of shoguns, military warlords, which lasted until the last one was defeated in 1868.
I could see that although Japan was small compared with America, it had a much longer history, stretching back to mythical times. Learning Japanese history was almost like learning Greek and Roman mythology, particularly when it came to the country's origins. We were all descendants of the Sun Goddess, with the emperor as patriarch. Though few of us believed this literally, we had the sense that the Japanese of our day and our ancestors were a continuum, almost as if the Greeks of today were descendants of Zeus.
Thanks to my lightning graduation from primary school, I entered Tamagawa's middle school without ado and stayed until the middle of my third year. I studied English with juniors and seniors, though I was only 13. Otherwise, however, I was scarcely a shining example of Obara's educating the whole man. I failed miserably at mathematics and science, and the only memory I have of a botany class is that we conned our teacher into taking us on an excursion to a candy store in the adjoining village, occasionally stopping to examine weeds and flowers along the way.
Eventually my parents decided that I did not have the self-discipline to keep myself moving forward, particularly in the case of subjects I didn't like. I transferred to a much more traditional school, where I had far less fun, but did get basic subjects crammed into me.
Would I have become a late bloomer at Tamagawa? I shall never know. But I still remember those faraway days as a jumble of sights, sounds, and smells - the spring breeze ruffling the grass on the hillsides, the tang of fall leaves and roasting sweet potatoes, the sticky ink of the print shop where I worked two afternoons a week. Tamagawa belongs to the halcyon days before we were engulfed by war, and for that I shall always be grateful to Obara Sensei and the school he founded.
*Other stories about the author's growing up in Japan appeared Feb. 11, June 24, and Aug. 19, 1999.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society