A bond between cultures

The playground resounds with the shouts and laughter of children of many nationalities - blue-eyed, black-eyed, fair-haired, brown-haired, pale-skinned, dark-skinned.

It was recess time at Nishimachi International School, where 365 children from 30 nationalities, kindergarten through ninth grade, study, play, and learn to appreciate each other.

''What's so wonderful about children of this age,'' said the principal, Tane Matsukata, ''is that they all learn to work together without intellectualizing, without stopping to think 'he's American' or 'I'm Indian or Japanese.'

''They learn what's fair play. They learn what's honesty. They learn, too, that there's more than one 'right' way of doing things. You do your things your way. I do my things my way. And you begin to see that the other kid's way of doing things may be just as valid as yours.''

Nishimachi International School, founded in 1949, has a dual purpose, Miss Matsukata said in a recent interview. First, its original aim, to teach Japanese children to become world citizens. Second, to teach children of the international community in Tokyo to appreciate cultures and societies other than their own, especially that of Japan, the country in which they are living.

Small classes. Familylike atmosphere. Individual attention. These have been characteristic of the school from the start. It began with a student body of four in the home of Mrs. Yuri Murata, one of the school's founding parents. It continues to this day in the spacious Western-style mansion that used to be Miss Matsukata's parental home in a quiet, central residential area.

Bilingual schools are not a rarity in this increasingly interconnected world of ours. But bilingual schools in Japan present a special problem, because the cultural gap between Japan and any Western country is, for instance, so much greater than the gap between the United States and France or Britain and Germany. Despite Japan's phenomenal economic growth and its wide-ranging contacts with Europe and the Americas, the Japanese largely retain their East Asian, insular cultural identity, their sense of separateness from the rest of the world.

It is not easy for a Japanese to send his children to Nishimachi. It is not on the Ministry of Education's list of approved primary schools, because it does not conform to its rigid rules regarding curriculum. Prospective parents, to fulfill their legal obligation of compulsory education for their children, must apply at their district offices for special permission to have their children attend a nonapproved school. The request is usually granted, but often accompanied by a long lecture on parental responsibilities and the difficulties their children may face later in finding their niche in Japanese society.

''Japanese society is still very closed,'' Miss Matsukata comments.

In fact, Japanese children make up only one-fourth of the student body at Nishimachi. But to Miss Matsukata, their presence is essential.

''Without Japanese children, there'd be no point to this school,'' she says earnestly. ''To have a school here where Japanese can mingle with people of other nationalities and be accepted, not as Japanese, but as Toshi or Mari - this is a very needed choice in education. That's why I'm not interested in having the school too big.

''Of course, it's also important to maintain one's own identity as Japanese or Chinese or American. That is done very much through language. That is why we insist that children whose mother tongue is Japanese should take Japanese as their first language.''

For these children, the Japanese they learn is more intensive than for those taking Japanese as a second language, and in addition they must take social studies in Japanese. All other subjects are taught in English. But those whose first language is Japanese must also take a special summer course in which all other subjects - mathematics, science, even physical education - are taught in Japanese, so that they will be familiar with the vocabulary when they go on to other schools.

In any case, whatever their nationality, all pupils must learn both Japanese and English. Beginners receive private coaching until they reach the level of their age group. ''It's important for an American child living here to learn Japanese,'' says Miss Matsukata, ''because through this he finds out how feelings are expressed, what feelings are expressed, as well as something about art and history and the kind of country Japan is.''

Miss Matsukata, slender and trim, combines an American down-to-earth pragmatism with a Japanese sensitivity to the feelings of others. She needs this in order to manage an international staff composed mostly of Japanese and Americans.

Japanese and American approaches differ widely, Miss Matsukata finds. Americans are forthright and emphasize the individual. The Japanese are more indirect and think in group terms. In discussions of curricula and other subjects, disagreements constantly crop up, she says, only to be settled as the people involved begin to see that there are several ways of approaching a problem.

Her own background taught her to think in more than single-nation terms, Miss Matsukata says. She comes from a distinguished family. One grandfather, Prince Masayoshi Matsukata, established the foundations of Japan's modern banking and financial system in the late 19th century. Conscious of Japan's need to learn from the West, he sent his sons to study in Britain, Germany, and the United States. Her other grandfather, Ryoichiro Arai, was one of Japan's first silk merchants in the United States, having established himself in New York in 1871 at the age of 17. Mr. Arai was a friend of one of Japan's pioneer educators, Yukichi Fukuzawa. ''Go to America,'' Mr. Fukuzawa told him. ''Make your headquarters there. Don't come back to Japan to live.'' Mr. Arai followed this advice. It was in America that his daughter Miyo met Prince Matsukata's son Shokuma, who was studying at Yale.

When the two were married and returned to Japan, Mrs. Matsukata felt the need of a more liberal, individual-centered education for her own chidren than the Japanese schools of the day provided.

Thus, her children, including Tane, were educated not only in private schools but also, for a period, in their own home along with the children of some family friends. The school became known informally as the Matsukata Academy, and it was the forebear of the Nishimachi School of today. The Matsukata Academy centered on Miss Florence Boynton, a remarkable American teacher whom Mrs. Matsukata persuaded to tutor her own children and those of some of her friends.

Here, Miss Matsukata not only learned English subjects taught in English, along with the Japanese education she received in private schools, but also values - the sense of a God who was not only loving but also principled.

''You see,'' said Miss Matsukata, ''in Japan so much is based on persons. How will so-and-so react to this? How will he feel about that? But if you base yourself on absolute principles, if you can think of God Himself as Principle, you find you can express natural love without getting involved in hurt feelings and the like.''

Miss Matsukata spent her last two years of high school and her entire college career in the US, at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred while Miss Matsukata and her sisters were at Principia. As ''enemy aliens'' the girls were interned on the college campus.

Along with the sense of the worth of the individual inculcated during her years in the US, Miss Matsukata says she feels particularly grateful for the love that was expressed to her during her wartime internment.

The war over, she returned to Japan with a master's degree in library science from Columbia University. But somewhere in the back of her mind there was a feeling that, if she ever got the chance, she would like to be able to pass on to others that same freeing sense of individual worth, that same accepting of people without first categorizing them as Japanese or Americans or whatever.

Miss Matsukata's first job in Tokyo was at the National Diet Library, modeled after the US Library of Congress. But she found it impossible to become enthusiastic over arguments as to whether the Dewey decimal system or the Japanese decimal system should prevail. Then, in 1949, a friend, Mrs. Yuri Murata, implored her to take over the education of her two young sons.

These were stirring times. A devastated, thoroughly disillusioned nation was beginning the painful process of economic and psychological recovery, of thinking through what went wrong in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, of taking the first, exuberant yet risk-filled steps on the road of democratic freedoms.

Mrs. Murata felt strongly that to prevent the tragedy of militarism and war ever overtaking Japan again, a new generation had to be brought up to think and feel in more than narrowly nationalistic terms. She did not see in the local schools of the period anywhere she wanted to place her children. Only someone like Miss Matsukata, who had herself experienced the wideness of the world outside, could, she thought, give a fresh impetus to education in Japan.

Miss Matsukata at first demurred. ''I'm not a trained teacher,'' she said. ''I don't know anything about children.'' But gradually Mrs. Murata's importunity persuaded her. This was in 1949, and the first classroom, for Mrs. Murata's children and two others, was a 9-by-9-foot room in Mrs. Murata's one-story home.

Since then, Nishimachi has grown steadily, from all-Japanese to international , from six-year primary school to kindergarten through ninth grade.

Somehow Miss Matsukata and her devoted staff, now numbering 50, seem to have kept the family atmosphere and the careful attention to individual needs that characterized the early years.

Partly this is achieved by keeping the school on a small campus in the middle of the city, rather than transferring to the suburbs as many other private schools in Tokyo have done. The school's main building is still the gracious old Matsukata mansion with wood-paneled rooms and fireplaces, and most of the parents want to keep it that way. But even to serve the present student body of 365 adequately, a reorganization and rebuilding of present facilities can no longer be delayed. For the first time in its 30-year history Nishimachi has embarked on a $3 million fund-raising program to achieve this rebuilding.

Nishimachi graduates have gone on to distinguished Japanese universities such as Keio and Waseda, as well as Harvard, Stanford, and other celebrated institutions abroad. Diplomats, businessmen, journalists, and scholars have sent their children to the school. One of the Emperor's grandsons was a pupil for several years.

Whatever the future may hold, Miss Matsukata's aim for the school remains what it was at the beginning - to educate children whose thinking embraces the world.

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