The signs of Japanese economic power are evident all around the South Bay, from the shimmering glass Nissan high-rise in Carson to the expansive 101-acre Honda headquarters under construction in Torrance.
At least 194 Japanese-based firms have branch operations between the Port of Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport, according to the membership rolls of the Japanese Business Assn. of Southern California.
Corporations and small businesses have arrived with executives and office workers who demand the kind of traditional education for their children that they received in their homeland. The result has been the blossoming of Japanese-language education in the South Bay. Eight years ago, two schools taught 356 students. This year, 1,430 children nearly fill three campuses in Hermosa Beach, Torrance and Gardena.
The International Bilingual School of Los Angeles is a weekday alternative to the public school system, while Asahi Gakuen and the East-West Japanese School are part-time supplements to American education.
All three schools are attractive to Japanese businessmen, who spend an average of just five years in the United States, because they promise to prepare their children for successful reentry into the highly competitive Japanese education system.
"The parents worry more than the kids do," said Yasushi Kobayashi, a Torrance businessman whose children attend the Saturday school Asahi Gakuen. "In Japanese society, you have to go to the big-name school. That is the target for the Japanese student. If they go there, they can get a good job."
Students are accustomed to the hard work. A group of junior high school students at Asahi Gakuen, or School of the Rising Sun, said recently that they do not mind schoolwork seven days a week.
Mika Osada, 13, who attends the private Rolling Hills Country Day School during the week, also attends Asahi Gakuen. She studies four or five hours a night and half of Sunday to keep up with homework for the two schools. That leaves just Sunday afternoon for free time.
"I've gotten used to it," Osada said during a class break. "Sometimes I want to spend more time with my friends, but it's OK."
Minoru Osada, an executive with Pentel of America Ltd. in Torrance, may be ordered back to Japan at any time, so Mika's mother, Junnko, follows the girl's schoolwork intently.
"My mother checks on my schoolwork because she understands (Japanese) more than I do," Mika said. "She wants to make sure how I'm doing."
Mothers in the close-knit Japanese community frequent the South Torrance High School campus, where Asahi Gakuen rents space for its classes, to work in the library as volunteers or raise money through craft sales. Some of the money they raise will be used to buy gifts for the 47-member faculty.
Junko Osada and three other mothers gathered in the school auditorium to discuss their children's progress. In halting English, all four said they anxiously await the results of the Gaku Ryoku Shiudan, a test given each year in February that measures the achievement of Japanese students.
"The parents are very worried about this test in comparison to (the performance) of students in Japan," said Assistant Principal Marie Yoshinaga. "They must be able to keep up with their classmates in Japan. That is our job."
Even more important are high school entrance exams, parents said. Only the top students are admitted to prestigious schools in Japan that, in turn, feed that nation's best universities and corporations. The three South Bay schools, which offer classes from kindergarten through ninth grade, have become the best hope for parents intent on preserving their children's competitive edge.
Asahi Gakuen operates four campuses in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including South Torrance High and a high school campus in West Los Angeles. The Torrance school opened in 1980 with 400 students and is now almost bursting out of its rented space with 773 students.
At Asahi Gakuen, tuition is just under $600 a year, with a one-time registration fee of up to $150.
Administrators credentialed by the Japanese Ministry of Education oversee a strict academic program that attempts to cram a week's worth of language, math, science and social studies into one day.
The East-West Japanese School in Gardena also caters to students who attend U.S. public schools. Registration is $230 and yearly tuition is $780 for elementary students, who spend two hours each week night in classrooms on LaSalle Avenue, across from the Gardena Civic Center. Fees vary slightly for kindergarten and junior high school students.
Sponsored by Church
The school is sponsored by the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as an outreach to the Japanese community. The Gardena Seventh-day Adventist Church adjoins the East-West classrooms.
Although most of the students come from Buddhist households, they participate in 10-minute Bible studies each night, according to Principal Akira Nakamura.
The International Bilingual School of Los Angeles offers the most comprehensive program in the South Bay, with classes five days a week from 8:30 a.m. until as late as 4 p.m. Students receive 210 days of instruction a year, compared to 180 days in California public schools.
Founder Tadao Hara said the school is one of only three weekday Japanese schools in the United States. Elementary school tuition is $2,640 a year, in addition to a one-time registration fee of $200.
Teachers say it is just as important for students to maintain Japanese customs as it is to excel in the classroom.
"They can keep up academically," Asahi Gakuen teacher Hiroko Horie said, "but the behavior patterns are so different; they face difficulties when they go back."