'School of the Rising Sun' : Surroundings Are American but Classes, Traditions Are Strictly Japanese

Times Staff Writer

The five teen-age boys were leaning against a shiny black Pontiac listening to rock music on the car's stereo when the school bell rang.

Although it was Saturday and they had already spent five days in school, the youths and about 500 other students from elementary grades through high school hurried inside Daniel Webster Junior High School for a day of no-nonsense instruction.

On Saturdays, Webster Junior High, at Graham Place and Sawtelle Boulevard, becomes Asahi Gakuen, or "School of the Rising Sun," for children of Japanese businessmen assigned to their company's branch offices in Southern California.

The combination of American and Japanese instruction enables students to keep a foot in both cultures, helping them to return successfully to Japanese schools when their parents "get the order and have to pack up and go," said Ikuro Komoto, the school's director of administration.

Formal Bows

At Asahi Gakuen, where respect for authority is taught along with the standard curriculum, formal bows usher in a school day.

A small boy dressed in short pants stood hesitantly in the library doorway. After a quick glance around at teachers too busy to look up from their work, he bowed hurriedly to no one in particular and entered the book-filled room.

"Asahi Gakuen's main purpose is to teach the kids so they can go back to Japan and adapt themselves to the Japanese system" which typically is a year or two ahead of American schools, said Teruhiko Matsumoto, assistant principal and high school teacher.

The school's rigorous curriculum requires the Saturday students to cover in one day the mathematics, science, social studies and Japanese grammar their fellow students back in Japan have all week to learn.

"Our dilemma is (that) we have to say, 'Study hard for American school, but come here on Saturday and study hard here,' " Matsumoto said.

However, Asahi Gakuen students seem to accept their dual responsibilities with relative ease.

"You get used to it, although at first it's kind of hard," said Kenji Kawahara, 16, who plans

to go back to study in his native Japan.

At least a third of Asahi Gakuen students will eventually return to Japan and the highly competitive examinations that play a central role in Japanese life.

From first grade on, preparing for tests weighs heavily on students in Japan. College entrance exams may determine not just what university a student attends, but even the corporation where he will work. And the passion for testing carries over to private companies where hiring is sometimes based on a general exam.

"Japanese parents always want their children to go to better schools," said Principal Shinji Ushijima through an interpreter. "The main purpose is to be hired by a good corporation."

Founded in 1969, Asahi Gakuen developed out of Japanese parents' concerns that their children might fall behind academically after being away from Japanese schooling for a few years. They also feared that their children would become too Americanized, Matsumoto said. The school soothes the business community's fears by reinforcing the students' cultural identity as well as maintaining Japanese academic standards.

After spending weekdays in the more informal environment of American classrooms, students sometimes violate rules observed in their home country.

For example, in Japan a student would never think of getting up during class to sharpen a pencil while a teacher is speaking, Matsumoto said. But it is common practice in this country.

"I try to run classes more formally," Matsumoto said. "Sometimes it's very difficult after what kids experience in American schools."

Although there are Asahi Gakuen campuses in Pasadena, Garden Grove and Torrance, the West Los Angeles campus houses the only high school in the system. Students are bused in from as far away as Orange County, Komoto said.

Shining Success

If enrollment figures are an indication, the Rising Sun school is a shining success. When Asahi Gakuen first began 17 years ago, there were 68 students on one campus. Today, 2,400 are enrolled on the four campuses. Projections for next year, Komoto said, indicate an enrollment increase that may require the addition of a fifth school.

An estimated 3,500 Japanese nationals work for the 530 branches of Japanese companies in the Los Angeles area, according to Hiroshi Matsuoka, executive director of the Japan Business Assn. of Southern California, the organization that helped Asahi Gakuen get started. About 85% of those executives send their children to Asahi Gakuen, Matsuoka said.

Monthly tuition--$67.50 for high school students and $49.50 for first- through ninth-graders--covers the cost of textbooks which are sent from Japan. Each school has an extensive library with volumes ranging from traditional folk tales to biographies of such Westerners as Florence Nightingale and Thomas Edison, and a dog-eared copy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's life story. The West Los Angeles campus has 5,000 books available for weekly lending, according to librarian Fatsuko Fujita.

Students are sometimes given homework assignments, but the emphasis is placed on class work, said Assistant Principal Kimiko Lin. Teachers avoid overloading students who already have a full slate of classes during the week.

"If they just come here every Saturday, without studying, that keeps them speaking the Japanese language," Matsumoto said.

The school's informal polling of Asahi Gakuen alumni shows that those students who attended regularly through high school graduation did better when they returned to Japan than those who attended sporadically, Matsumoto said.

Although spending six days a week in school can be tough, students said that the opportunity to see their friends shored up their motivation. Many even cited their friends as the primary reason for attending.

"I have American friends and enjoy American school," said 11th-grader Aya Yamaura. "On Saturday I can come here and meet my Japanese friends."

Rapt Attention

On a recent Saturday, while other children were playing with friends or watching the Smurfs, well-behaved fourth-graders at Asahi Gakuen watched televised science experiments narrated in Japanese. Their rapt attention deteriorated into quiet fidgeting as the program came to an end. Videotaped lessons--from a library of about 70 history, geography and science cassettes--are often used in teaching younger students, Lin said.

"Most of the younger children can understand Japanese very well," said fourth-grade teacher Kuniko Seto. "But for some raised here it's a little bit hard. Students raised in Japan are a little more advanced."

Propelled by cultural pride, even parents who do not expect to return to Japan send their children to Asahi Gakuen, as Seto plans to do.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°