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For Japanese Visitors, It’s Extra School : Saturday Class Aims to Keep Students on Pace

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The most serious studying of the week at Wagenheim Junior High School in Mira Mesa takes place on Saturdays.

That is when almost 300 Japanese children, whose parents work for about 40 Japanese companies from Rancho Bernardo to Tijuana, crowd into 22 portable classrooms at Wagenheim. For six hours, the students receive intensive instruction in the Japanese language and in math, social studies and science. The Saturday school in rented facilities is in addition to their Monday-through-Friday attendance at regular public and private schools in San Diego.

The growth of the school, known as Minato Gakuen, is another sign of the times pointing to the increasing influence of Japan in international business, especially in the San Diego area. Begun 10 years ago with four classes for 40 students, the school today counts itself among the top 10 in enrollment among the 48 schools in the United States regulated by Japan’s Ministry of Education, which sends principals from Japan to head the schools.

Keeping Students on Toes

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The schools grew out of concern that U.S.-educated Japanese children would be unable to compete effectively for admission to top universities upon returning to Japan. Public schools in Japan are generally considered more rigorous than those in the United States.

So, each Saturday, car pool after car pool of Japanese children--more than 70% of elementary age--pull into the Wagenheim parking lot shortly before 9 a.m. The students are greeted by Principal Kazuki Satomi, an Osaka elementary school assistant principal and veteran of overseas Japanese schools in Korea, who is in the first of three years’ duty at Minato Gakuen.

“One of the many problems facing the personnel here is that of their children,” said Rio Imamura, a Kyocera America Inc. executive in San Diego and chairman of the association that administers the school. “Being away from Japan, the children suddenly lose substantial contact with the native language and culture . . . .

“Reports indicate that many frustrated parents return to Japan only to find that these same children fall behind the educational level of children of the same grade.”

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Admission to the most prestigious Japanese universities is based on rigorous examinations and the competition is intense. Junior- and senior-high students go to school six days a week and many attend special “cram” sessions at night or on Sundays in an effort to gain an edge.

Tougher Curriculum

“It’s harder here,” Takuma Baba, 12, said of Minato Gakuen’s weekly curriculum, which includes math, science, Japanese history, social science and Japanese language instruction.

Baba, who has lived in the United States for three years, attends sixth grade at Bernardo Heights School in the Poway Unified School District. “The math we do here is more advanced, like percentages,” Baba said.

Masami Uchida of California First Bank, a subsidiary of the Bank of Tokyo, said that his wife “looks at the math that my seventh-grade son does in the public school and what is done at Minato Gakuen. In the public school, he hasn’t yet learned the computer language he has learned here.”

Satomi, the principal, said that Japanese students are perhaps more serious than American students in elementary and secondary school, in large part because they are required to absorb so much more information to succeed on college entrance exams.

“American students may learn more after they get into college,” he added, referring to the widespread consensus among Japanese that their universities are less demanding than those in America. “By the time of graduation, perhaps the students are at the same level.”

But Satomi acknowledges that the one-day-a-week sessions, no matter how intense, cannot completely match the curriculum in Japan.

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“We tell the students that they must be serious about their American studies as well because the once-a-week studies here means that the level of achievement (compared to Japan) will still fall a little,” Satomi said. “We can cover the texts provided by the Ministry of Education but perhaps at a little less depth . . . but the school at least allows the student to be able to catch up when they go back to Japan. When they return to Japan, the knowledge of English is not enough. If you are only good at English, then you will have real difficulty.”

Most of the students at Minato Gakuen are in the elementary grades because most of the executives are in their late 30s or early 40s and have young children.

Also, many parents whose children reach high school age send them back to Japan so that they can finish high school and attend college there.

“If you return to Japan and you are going into high school, it is a big problem if you have been living in the United States,” said Hashim Bharoocha, a ninth-grader at Standley Junior High School in University City. “Even if you have been studying here (at Minato Gakuen), you still are going to be behind if you go back.”

Nobuo Okumura, vice president and manager of the Sumitomo Bank of California office in San Diego, left his family behind in Japan because his children are of high-school age and he wants them to remain in school there.

Many of the high school age students at Minato Gakuen have opted to graduate from U.S. schools and continue on at American universities, a trend that Japanese officials believe will become stronger as the home country becomes more internationalized.

Until now, Japanese students who graduated from American institutions have found professional job openings scarce at home because most Japanese corporations traditionally prefer to hire only from certain Japanese universities. However, several major Japanese companies have begun to recruit in the United States.

Yohei Kitazawa, a 10th-grader at University City High School, has lived in the United States for 9 years and plans to continue his studies in this country.

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“But I come here so I won’t forget Japanese, that is the main reason,” Kitazawa said, adding that he also is able to see Japanese friends who live elsewhere in the county.

Taka Itoh, a sophomore at La Jolla Country Day School, agreed that for people such as himself who do not plan to go back for schooling, the Saturday school allows them to retain some knowledge of Japanese.

“Here in the U.S. if you don’t work in school, students just drop out, but in Japan they push you, and you have to keep up,” Itoh said.

Satomi spends much of his time working with the school’s teachers, most of them wives of Japanese executives living here. Others are longtime residents of the United States born in Japan.

“Our budget is tight and we cannot have teachers sent from Japan,” Satomi said. “I spend time with them on teaching technique, such as classroom management.” He also visits each classroom every Saturday to observe and make suggestions and holds regular teacher meetings to discuss such Japanese methods as using red chalk on the blackboard to emphasize points in a particular lesson.

Satomi also visits county public schools where Japanese students study. Although not an ombudsman for the students, Satomi is interested in whether the children are able to understand the English textbooks and whether they socialize with American students.

Despite the extra schooling, Satomi and the parents concede that retention and reinforcement of Japanese customs is a harder task than maintenance of academic skills.

“We try to have one hour of socialization a week,” Satomi said. In schools in Japan, teachers regularly reinforce the Japanese reliance on group action and preference for order, ideas that run counter to the philosophy of American education. “But there really is little time to do it here,” Satomi said.

Ken Takada, another Kyocera executive who has lived in San Diego with his children for five years, said that “each home of Japanese parents must teach the Japanese way here. . . . It is too much to put that requirement alone on the school.”


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