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SCHOOL OF THE RISING SUN : Surroundings Are American but Classes, Traditions Are Strictly Japanese

November 02, 1986|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH PASADENA — At the stroke of 9 every Saturday morning, the big school building on Oak Street undergoes, almost magically, a transformation.

First, a contingent of 40 teachers marches briskly into brimming classrooms to be greeted--there among the crayon drawings, maps of California, dog-eared dictionaries and chalkboard erasers--with formal standing bows from their students.

"Ohayo gozaimasu ," says one teacher. It means good morning.

"Ohayo gozaimasu, " the students respond in unison.

The studies this morning at South Pasadena Junior High School bear little resemblance to the usual weekday fare.

History lessons that during the week might have focused on the American Revolution or the Civil War now concern emperors and eras. In the math classes, the plus and minus signs give way to ideograms. There is no alphabet used in spelling classes, but hundreds of Japanese characters. Not a word of English is spoken until 3:30 in the afternoon.

Extra Homework

This is the Asahi Gakuen, where Japanese and Japanese-American youngsters get a one-day-a-week taste of rigorous Japanese-style education. After five days of mathematics, science and history in American schools, the 600 or so elementary school and junior high school students in the school's San Gabriel Valley branch do it again--in Japanese. There are even extra homework assignments.

"It's just a regular thing for us," shrugged 13-year-old Hiromichi Toyonaga, a ninth-grader at La Salle High School in Pasadena during the week. "It's nothing special. The extra work doesn't bother me."

There is nothing odd about this tall, sleepy-looking youth with the thatch of black hair. Although engaging in serious academics on a balmy Saturday morning may seem downright un-American for the average ninth-grader from Southern California, Toyonaga knows that his life in the U.S.A. is transitory.

As inevitably as the arrival of new zigs and zags in the international business picture, Toyonaga will, sometime in the next two years, be swept from his temporary home in Pasadena and deposited back in his native land.

"My father is in textiles," said the youngster. "I will return to Japan when my father's business transfers him."

That means going back to a super-competitive world, where education is paramount and where the entire course of Toyonaga's life may be determined by his score on a single test.

Prestige in Schooling

According to Japanese nationals here, Japanese schooling tends to be elitist, with clear distinctions between "name" schools and also-rans. Getting onto the success track in Japan means passing a series of mind-stumping admissions tests, which begin in grade school, then attending a prestige college like the University of Tokyo and, ultimately, achieving stellar elevation to a job with a company high in the corporate firmament.

Ikuro Komoto, director of administration for Asahi Gakuen, explained it this way: "Top officials of the big corporations all graduated from the name schools. Naturally, they pick alumni of their schools when they hire people."

Thus, the lives of Japanese school children,beginning in the first grade, are consumed by preparations for tests, like the Zenkoku Kyotsu Ichiji Shiken, the so-called general examination, which separates the wheat from the chaff among high school graduates every February, determining who will go to college and who won't.

Before that, though, there will be tests to get into prestige junior high schools and high schools. There may even be admissions tests for tutorial academies--the "cram"

schools--which prepare students for later tests.

'Rising Sun School'

Being thrust into that kind of a charged educational environment after four or five years in an American public school can be like getting thrown into a pool of ice water, say teachers from the Asahi Gakuen, which means literally "rising sun school."

"There was a girl whose parents came to this country and made the mistake of speaking only English in the home," mathematics instructor Shigetaro Murata said. "He was the president of a company, and he was established here. But then he had to return home. The girl had a lot of trouble. She completely could not understand the language, the ways or the attitudes. The only school she could go to in Japan was the American school."

Asahi Gakuen, then, serves primarily as an educational outpost of the home country for the children of Japanese businessmen, assigned by parent companies overseas to Southern California. The school soothes the business community's fears that their children will be consumed by the grinding culture of Southern California, lost forever to their native culture.

"The longer they stay, the more the children come under the American influence," said Yuko Uchida, principal of the school. "It's very easy to forget the Japanese way of thinking."

Began 17 Years Ago

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