The Adventures of a Japanese Woman (Part 3): Life at the International School in Tokyo, Japan
Surviving Life at the International School
On the first day of school at the international school, I came home and told my mother that I had a good time. I think this was a big relief for my parents because this was a big gamble considering the high costs but they still decided to follow through with this decision. There was no hope that I would adapt to the local public school. In short, I was miserable there. I was very lucky since the new school was within commuting distance (an hour away, taking two separate trains) and my father was able to secure a second job to cover the high costs.
The commute was a little worrying since I was only a second grader. My mother accompanied me in the beginning but soon, I was able to commute without any problems, though it must have been tiring for a young girl initially.
Upon entering the school, they assumed I had forgotten my English so they put me back one grade.
I started second grade, but my classmates were all a year younger than me. I was not pleased with this arrangement. Strangely, my teacher never gave me an English test to see what level I was at. They decided they would put me in the regular class with kids whose first language was English, and see how I would do. If there were problems, I was informed that they would put me in an ESL (English as a second language) class. Apparently, even after several months, there were no problems. I seemed to comprehend most of what went on in class. Incredibly, I had not forgotten my English, even though it was only first grade English I learned at the public school in Culver City.
Summers in Chino City, Nagano
In late 1975, my father purchased a cottage in Chino City, Nagano, not too far away from his hometown. During the summer when my father`s university was on summer vacation, we would all spend a month at this cottage which was surrounded by mountains, rivers, and rice fields. My brother, sister, and myself would spend hours at the nearby stream looking for such animals as frogs, amongst others. We would also visit our uncles` and aunt`s homes and became quite close to them. The cottage had a farm in the front and we grew potatoes and squash. There was also a chestnut tree but it was eventually cut down.
I have very precious memories of our cottage and it offered a get away place for me since I had no friends in our neighborhood in Tokyo. Attending a different school than the neighborhood kids offered very little opportunity for me to befriend them. I spent my time reading and working on my Japanese reading and writing skills to distract myself from the loneliness and boredom.
The Classmates at the International School
Although I seemingly adapted to the international school, there was one thing that bothered me initially. Because most students were not Japanese citizens, they must have wondered why a student who was a Japanese citizen would attend a school for foreigners.
"Are your parents Japanese?" they would ask. I would answer, "yes". "Then why are you going to an international school?" I had to tell them the entire story of how I ended up at the school. "I lived in Los Angeles for two years, came back and went to a Japanese school, but I didn`t fit in, so I came here". My classmates had no words to reply. They didn`t discuss my situation with anyone so I would be asked the same question again by another classmate. It got to be so annoying that I often thought of recording my answer on a tape recorder and replay it whenever someone asked the same question. Thinking back now, my classmates probably had no intention of making me feel bad. They were just asking the question out of curiosity. However, I interpreted this question and answer session as having a hidden message; that I didn`t belong in this school.
Fortunately, I wasn`t a target of any bullying at the international school. There were no apparent uniformity that was enforced, like everyone having to purchase the same school supplies which was the case at the local public school. I also enrolled at the beginning of the school year. There were actually a few Japanese students who had come directly from overseas, or they were students at another international school in Tokyo the previous school year. Their numbers increased by the time I was in fourth grade so eventually, I wasn`t asked the question as to why I was attending the school.
Strangely, I didn`t feel I had anything in common with these Japanese classmates. They were somehow more "Americanized", having never attended a local Japanese school, and they seemed to quickly make friends with their non-Japanese classmates. I did find Japanese friends who weren`t as "Americanized", and a friend who was second generation Japanese. Overall however, I made very few friends at the international school.
Working on Reading and Writing Skills in Japanese
At this school, all classes were taught in English, and there was a Japanese language class which was mainly for foreigners. There were no classes geared towards native Japanese speakers like myself, and even the most advanced class was insufficient in learning to read and write in Japanese. I quickly learned that I needed to work on my reading and writing skills at home and not rely on the class offered at school.
"If I didn`t acquire reading and writing skills in Japanese, I will no longer be Japanese". This was a real threat I always felt. Is there a Japanese person who can`t read and write in Japanese?
I asked my mother to purchase the Japanese language textbook used in the local public school. She found an old book store near Mitaka Station where left over textbooks were sold. She told me she dreaded going to the bookstore because the atmosphere of the bookstore as well as the store clerk who wore traditional trousers for women reminded her of the days during World War II. It must have resembled some shop in the neighborhood in central Tokyo where my mother grew up.
Using the textbook, I worked daily on my reading and writing skills mainly during the three month long summer vacation. I also visited the local library and checked out books in Japanese, mainly children`s literature. Had I not studied at home, I would have grown up not being able to read and write in Japanese.
In third grade, I had a teacher who was an American of Japanese descent. He was originally from Okinawa. I had no problems with him, but I was secretly wishing he would put me up one grade since I dreaded being an year older than my classmates. By the end of the year, I gave up. It simply wasn`t going to happen.
In fourth grade, I had a teacher who again was an American of Japanese descent. She was married to a Caucasian American and had a son in kindergarten. Let`s just say her name was Mrs. K. Nothing about her was Japanese, and for some reason, she disliked me. Perhaps she found me too "Japanese". The only other fourth grade class also had a teacher who was of Japanese descent. She was also married to a Caucasian American and a graduate of this international school, class of 1966. Let`s just say her name was Mrs. B.
I felt a bit uncomfortable being around Mrs. K and Mrs. B because although they looked Asian, their mannerisms, the way they dressed and of course, the way they spoke suggested otherwise. Nothing about them was Japanese. Mrs. K was born and raised in the U.S. and had actually spent time in the internment camp as a young girl after the Japanese Pearl Harbor Attack during World War II. Mrs. B, who taught the other fourth grade class, always wore extremely high heels and one time I heard her talking on the phone in Japanese. She could say a full sentence but not without stammering. It just looked strange from a fourth grader`s eyes.
According to my mother, some parents of the fourth grade students complained that they didn`t want their kids` teachers to be "Japanese". That was another example of racism at an international school where one would think it would not exist.