Students from Here, There, and Everywhere ; in Tokyo, International Schools Follow an English-Language Curriculum but Stay Grounded in Local Culture

Article excerpt

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. …