Students from here, there, and everywhere

In Tokyo, international schools follow an English-language curriculum but stay grounded in local culture.

A first visit to Tokyo's American School in Japan (ASIJ) includes one jarring moment of cultural disconnect.

Walking there from the train station, you turn left at the fruit and vegetable stand, pass through a lane crowded with tiny houses identified by graceful Japanese characters, and then veer right at the Shinto temple.

After that it's through some metal gates and a parking lot - and smack into a modern American high school, complete with locker doors slamming, sneakers squeaking on the floor, and, in one corner, a group of fair-haired teens enthusiastically sharing a pizza. It looks and sounds for all the world like a scene from an affluent Midwestern suburb.

Such is the anomaly of the English-speaking international school. It exists about as close as one can get to the heart of another society, and yet in some ways remains a tiny capsule of domestic culture.

"It's like a little microcosm of the US, although it's not like any school in the States," says John Buckler, a Canadian who recently left Australia to teach biology at ASIJ.

Some amazing opportunities

In many ways, such a school offers an unparalleled cultural and academic experience for its students. "We had some really amazing opportunities there," recalls Freyja Hartzell, who attended the Nishimachi International School in Tokyo during her middle school years while her father worked for the US government there. "We had Japanese social studies twice a week, in Japanese when we were fluent enough. We did plays in Japanese, sang songs."

Her time there also involved an annual ski trip to the Japanese Alps, a visit to a Japanese farming community, and field trips in and around Tokyo. And she had an international circle of friends: Her best friend was Danish-Japanese, and her first boyfriend had a mother from California and a father from Tokyo.

For many students, it's a lesson in tolerance and diversity that lasts a lifetime.

"Everybody's nice," says Takao Hosokawa, who attends St. Mary's International School, an English-speaking boys' school in Tokyo. In Takao's fifth-grade class are students from the US, Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Kuwait, India, Canada, France, and a number of other countries. "We're all from different places, but they treat us all the same."

"We're not really that different," adds classmate Mamoru Kanazawa, who is both Japanese and American. "We all like the same things."

'Third-culture' kids

In many ways life at an international school is hard to fully appreciate for those who have not experienced it. There are probably close to 1,000 English-speaking schools in non-English-speaking countries around the world, estimates John Nicklas, president of International Schools Services in Princeton, N.J.

Such schools are intended largely as a convenience for families living abroad, Dr. Nicklas says. But they end up also serving the valuable purpose of creating a category of "third-culture kids," children who may have US or other passports but have lived abroad and entered so fully into another culture that they do not belong fully either to their home country or to the host country, but have instead developed a unique identity.

"These kids have the understanding of another culture," he says. "They create a form of quiet diplomacy."

About 200 of the English-speaking schools abroad are referred to as "American international schools," and these are most often like the ASIJ, independent schools that support themselves almost entirely through tuition, although many receive small grants from the US State Department as well.

These schools generally have curricula created in line with US standards, although most work hard to integrate the culture and language of their host country into their offerings as well. About two-thirds of their students are children of Americans living abroad. The other students are most likely either other foreigners living abroad or the children of nationals of the host country who want their children to receive an American-style education.

But each international school has its own history and purpose. ASIJ, which opened its doors in 1902 to teach children English, Latin, penmanship, and grammar, absorbed a wave of Russian children in the 1920s after the Bolshevik Revolution, and another wave of European children as fascism spread in the 1930s. The school was displaced after the earthquake of 1923 and closed during World War II.

Today, about two-thirds of students are US citizens, And since Sept. 11, ASIJ, like many institutions with links to the United States, has faced a new set of challenges. After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the school took the precaution of removing the word "American" from its buses, and a new gate went up at the entrance. Despite a new alertness, though, life goes on much as before.

Historical origins

Nishimachi was founded after the war in 1949 by Tane Matsukata, sister-in-law of former US ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer. The goal was to help Japanese children study English and adopt an international outlook. Eventually the school developed a dual-language curriculum in Japanese and English intended for children of all countries.

St. Mary's, which started out in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, was originally intended to teach Japanese to Roman Catholic church workers in Japan. But after the war, says Brother Michel Jutras, headmaster of the school, the expanding demand for English-language education for children of multinational corporate employees prompted St. Mary's to move to Tokyo and concentrate on educating children in grades kindergarten through 12. It is still run by the Catholic Church and focuses on teaching values, but the school does not mandate religious classes.

Although such international schools can be found all over the world, some of the best known are in Europe and Asia. Tokyo in particular is considered a stronghold for them, in part because the city offers a good quality of life for nonnationals, and in part because Japanese society has created a climate conducive to high-quality education.

"It's a part of Japanese culture," says Peter Cooper, headmaster of ASIJ. "The desire to excel academically is more accepted here, and our students respond to that influence." About 18 percent of the students at ASIJ are fully Japanese, and many others have one Japanese parent.

There for the long haul

Ben Stein, a junior at ASIJ, is the son of American parents who both teach at a Japanese university. He has attended ASIJ since elementary school, and his experience has been so positive that his parents decided they would not leave Tokyo until he graduates.

Such a choice is not uncommon, says Dr. Cooper. A school like ASIJ offers many of the advantages of a top-flight US private school, including small class size, talented faculty, and extracurriculars such as strong art and music programs, TV and radio studios, and of course exposure to Japanese language and culture.

Yet in many ways, ASIJ has the open and casual feel of a US public school.

For some US nationals living abroad, a school like ASIJ offers advantages children would not receive at home.

Although he expects to attend a US college, Ben says he's glad he's been educated at ASIJ. "I feel like I've been culturally enriched here," he says. "When I'm in the US for the summer I sometimes feel like people there don't know anything about the world."

St. Mary's is, if anything, perhaps even more international in spirit than ASIJ, with 930 students from 60 countries, compared with 1,400 students from 40 countries at ASIJ. Only about a quarter of the students there are from the US. St. Mary's is single-sex and observes a coat-and-tie dress code. Japanese language study is compulsory until high school, when it becomes an elective.

"It's like a small college here," says Hideki Oh, who has a Chinese father and a Japanese mother and is headed to the University of Pennsylvania next year. "You really can't compare it to any other school."

• Send e-mail comments to marjorie@csmonitor.com

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