|Copyright The Washington Post Company Apr 6,
"GIVE ME a girl at an impressionable age, and she
is mine for life," the Edinburgh schoolmistress confidently declares
in Muriel Spark's memorable novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Although I did not have a single teacher as
overwhelming as Miss Brodie (thank the Lord), so much of my own
identity has been shaped -- yes, for life -- by the people at St.
For 12 impressionable years, from the age of 6 to
18, I was a student at this small all-boys Catholic school in the
port city of Yokohama, Japan. The entire school had fewer than 500
students in both primary and secondary levels during the peak years
and has only 156 students today. In 1982 the school became
coeducational, and two years later the name of the school was
changed to St. Joseph International School. But ever since its
founding in 1901 by the Society of Mary, the school has operated
continuously -- the only interruptions being the Great Kanto
Earthquake of 1923 and the aerial bombing during World War II, both
of which demolished much of Yokohama, Japan's second largest
In November 1995, news reached me from family and
former schoolmates halfway around the globe that St. Joseph's will
cease to exist. The combination of a dwindling religious faculty and
an insufficient number of new students seems to have contributed to
the impending demise. A flurry of phone calls and e-mail and letters
containing news clippings arrived. Before I could fathom the
implications of the closing, a movement led by parents and alumni to
save the school emerged.
A familiar story? Perhaps. But I'd like to believe
there is something odd and unique about my school. What
distinguished St. Joe's in Yokohama from the other schools in Japan
was that during my 12 years there, it was truly catholic: Teachers
and students came from all over the world. My first-grade teacher,
Brother Leo Kraft, was Swiss; my senior homeroom teacher, Brother
Robert Wood, was from St. Louis. In between, I had Brother Jose
Arnaiz from Spain, who mesmerized us with episodes from Don Quixote;
and Brother Germain, Alsatian and a former French Foreign
Legionaire. This beekeeper, gardener and stamp collector
extraordinaire told us how he survived the trek across the Sahara by
drinking his own urine.
I confessed my sins to Father Pila, an Italian, who
once tore up a photograph of Kim Novak in clinging cardigan that my
friend Wataru Ogawa passed during lunchtime. Ouch! The punishment
was harsh, but after school we had our sweet revenge: We saw Kim
clap and sway to the soft jazz of "Moonglow" and walk down the steps
toward William Holden who waited for her under Japanese lanterns on
a floating dance floor on the lake and the moon did glow in the
movie, which was "Picnic." That was in eighth grade when our
hormones began to bubble.
And speaking of picnics and lunches: We had a
spontaneous ritual of exchanging lunches with our classmates. There
was Ravil, the Muslim cleric's son from Turkey, with his egg and
vegetables sandwiched in homemade pita; Nicholas, whose mother had
fled Communist Russia to bring us the finest piroshki; Dick Tilley,
the U.S. Army brat, whose peanut butter and jelly sandwiches tasted
oh so exotic. He didn't like my Japanese rice balls with plums and
seaweed, but he devoured the rolls with chocolate fillings from
Kimuraya that I purchased on the way to school.
After class, we wandered about Chinatown where some
of my classmates lived and munched on steamed dumplings and
sweet-and-sour pickled plums. We drank Viennese coffee at
Motomachi's German Bakery and ate apple strudel while we ogled the
girls from St. Maur's, Ferris and Futaba high schools.
I joined the Boy Scouts, not just any troop but
International Troop Number One, founded and chartered by Sir Robert
Baden-Powell himself when he visited St. Joseph College in 1918. I
was told by the current principal that it is still the only
international Boy Scout troop in the world. I remember the national
jamboree in Karuizawa when we marched in front of the Crown Prince
of Japan, the current Emperor Akihito. Our magnificently motley
troop made it onto the pages of a famous newsmagazine. While others
ate atrociously cooked scout food, we were the only troop that was
invited by a prominent Japanese politician to a fancy lunch -- all
because we were different.
In high school I was a singer for the Blue Saints,
a rock 'n' roll band that played a lot of hit music -- from Elvis to
Little Richard. Our bandleader, Yankee Soo, was Chinese; Jose de
Cossio was Peruvian, and Seyoum Yohannes, the Ethiopian ambassador's
son, played base guitar. Our female vocalist, Amy Eyton from St.
Maur's, was partly British. We had a couple of older students from
Keio University and several Japanese including myself from St.
Joe's. But what united us all was our love of American music, which
had a hold on us long before we heard the phrase "cultural
Then there was soccer. It's wildly popular in Japan
now, but back in the '50s and '60s, it was still an exotic game. At
St. Joe's it dominated all other sports. Brother Enrique Zabala, the
Basque from Vitoria with a grace that rivaled the finest Spanish
matador, was our esteemed coach. Our international team was so good
we had to play against college teams, and we still won the city
championship. Word got around the globe that sailors who arrived in
Yokohama were eagerly anticipating a soccer game against us -- high
school kids! To even the matches, our teachers joined in. And they
Last summer I returned to my alma mater with my
Belgian wife to give a talk on journalism and literature, a role
reversal that I found quite satisfying. I had been back perhaps a
dozen times since my graduation in 1961, and each visit uplifted me
with an exhilarating rush of memories. The experience is somewhat
akin to what Wordsworth wrote, "of splendour in the grass, of glory
in the flower," in his ode "Intimations of Immortality from
Recollections of Early Childhood." It was the closest thing to
coming home, a place where I grew up and came of age.
My childhood home down the hill from St. Joseph in
front of Honmoku Beach was torn down years ago. Which is just as
well since the politicians and big businesses that colluded to
produce Japan's economic miracle decided to bulldoze the romance of
the seashores and build oil refineries and loading docks for cargo
ships. There is such irony to the destruction since the name of the
city, Yokohama, means "horizontal beach": There are no beaches left
in the city.
Perhaps it's a quixotic endeavor to join the
movement to keep St. Joseph International School from closing but
it's truly in the spirit of what our teachers taught us -- the
nobility of pursuing our dreams.
Many of our graduates pursued seemingly quixotic
dreams, I am sure. I was informed by a teacher at St. Joseph that in
1987, one of our graduates, a 1922 valedictorian named Charles J.
Pedersen, was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Pedersen was
born in Korea to a Japanese mother and a Norwegian father, studied
in the United States and became an American. Such an exotic blend
isn't all that unique at St. Joseph.
Another successful dreamer who attended our school
was Isamu Noguchi, whose mother was American, his father Japanese.
And what an adventurous life he led. He was briefly married to one
of the most glamorous actresses in Japan, was almost shot by Diego
Rivera when he was with the Mexican artist's wife, Frida Kahlo.
Isamu was a close friend of Buckminster Fuller and
Martha Graham and designed stage settings for the avant-garde Martha
Graham Dance Company. He studied with Brancusi in Paris, became a
sculptor, and had a delightfully eclectic career, from designing
lamps to public parks. Perhaps the Catholic teachers would not have
approved of his lifestyle, but he was certainly an intriguing
At St. Joseph I learned the importance of
perspective. As with the globe that can be viewed from different
angles to give new meaning to our understanding (try looking at the
United States and Russia from the North Pole, for example), I have
come to appreciate points of view in learning -- politics and
history, art and literature, whatever the subject might be.
I remember our history class in our senior year
when my Ethiopian classmate stood up to protest the U.S. policy in
Africa, specifically the events in the Congo (now Zaire), a few
months after Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1960. Seyoum talked
about Lumumba as a great man and patriot who fought against
colonialism, and said that the CIA was involved in undermining his
efforts. None of us could fully comprehend what he was talking
about. But in 1975, after the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee
hearings led by Sen. Frank Church revealed the extent of the CIA's
dirty tricks, I finally began to fathom the meaning of Seyoum's
Times have changed. The neighborhood, on a hill
overlooking the city and known as the Bluff for over a century, is
dotted with fancy new restaurants on grounds where some of my
schoolmates' homes once stood. For now, St. Joseph still stands at
85 Yamate-cho, near the city's landmark, the Foreign Cemetery where
many of my teachers are buried.
At a recent school reunion near Washington, D.C.,
with Brother Daniel Calvo, a teacher I had known since third grade,
we reminisced about old times and talked about saving our school.
While listening to the Spanish teacher talk longingly of returning
to Japan, some of us realized that the movement to save the school
was not just for the current students and for the alumni. It was
also for those dedicated teachers who left their faraway homes
across the oceans to teach at St. Joseph's. For some it was their
only home. And, come to think of it, they were ours for life.
Kunio Francis Tanabe is the senior editor and art director of Book World,
The Washington Post. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
|PHOTO,,K.F. Tanabe CAPTION: St. Joseph
International School in Yokohama, Japan CAPTION: Francis
Tanabe, front row, left, and several of his St. Joseph
classmates during an excursion in 1961|