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
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
"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
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