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Growing Up International; [FINAL Edition]
Kunio Francis TanabeThe Washington PostWashington, D.C.: Apr 6, 1997. pg. R.18
Full Text (1731   words)
Copyright The Washington Post Company Apr 6, 1997

"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. Joseph College.

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 city.

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 hegemony."

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 were ferocious.

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 artist.

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 outrage.

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:

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

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Subjects:   Church schools,  Foreign students,  EDUCATION
Locations:   Japan
Document types:   Commentary
ISSN/ISBN:   01908286
Text Word Count   1731
Document URL:    

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