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Nishimachi International School and Its Founding Philosophy
Posted 06/07/2013 01:00PM

By Virginia Anami
日本語訳 村田 学

(The Internationalist Spring 2013 Vol. 50)

Whenever I come back to the Nishimachi campus, I am always reminded of its history because, as most of you have noticed, there is a historic old home right at its main entrance. I think about how this Matsukata family house represents the many changes in Japan over the past one hundred years. But more than that, it represents how people can face drastic changes in their society and adapt to make the best of the new situation.

If we go back to the grandfathers of our founder, Tané Matsukata, for example, the two had been on different sides of the fence during the nineteenth century Meiji Restoration and found themselves challenged by the new order in Japan. They both worked for Japan's economic development: one became the finance and prime minister. The other went into the silk business and eventually set up the silk exchange in New York and was one of the founders of the Japan Society there. Another thing they had in common was that they committed their families to significant international exposure, with many of their children having some education abroad.

The son of the prime minister studied at Yale and met the daughter of the head of the silk exchange in New York. When they returned from the United States and married, this young couple decided to build a western-style home designed by a well-known foreign architect. Having been exposed to the more open atmosphere in America, the wife, Miyo Matsukata, was concerned, especially for her daughters, about the limitations in the Japanese educational system at the time. So she decided to have her children tutored because she wanted them not just to fit into society but also to be exposed to a wide variety of reading matter both in Japanese and English. She wanted them to be independent thinkers and function as individuals in a democratic world. Thus, from around 1920, actually even before, this house was the school for the six Matsukata children. Eventually one American lady tutor actually moved in to live with them after the 1923 earthquake. Tané Matsukata once told me that this tutor even accompanied them whenever they went out. "I was so embarrassed," she said, "walking down the street to the Juban for shopping. It wasn't because we were with a foreign lady. No, it was because she made us wear western-style clothes that she had made out of Japanese mattress cloth (futon kiji)." But these kinds of experiences probably gave Tané Matsukata the strength to be different.



Yet when the Matsukata children were in their teens, their lives were turned upside down as tensions were rising in East Asia. As you all well know, the war brought with it so much devastation. In Japan, society as a whole and individual families were also torn apart. The Matsukata family made a bold decision. In 1931, they were able, because of close connections to friends in the United States, to send most of the children to a boarding school in America to continue their education. I am sure that was not easy for those children to be separated for so long from their parents. But they adapted to their circumstances.


How did the family stay in touch during the war years? The Matsukata parents had rented out their home to the Swedish embassy, so they were staying in one of the cottages that were also on the property. The Swedish diplomat who lived in the main house liked to raise chickens. Now these chickens would wander every day into the corner lot where the Matsukatas were growing vegetables, over where the upper primary building now stands. As one of the friends of the Matsukatas has written, "The chickens were a nuisance but it also allowed Tané's mother, Mrs. Miyo Matsukata, to talk with the diplomat as they ran the chickens out of the garden and while they were at it to innocently give and receive mail from her family in the US via the Swedish diplomatic pouch."

This neighborhood was pretty much destroyed, including the part of the school property along the street that had been bombed. Yet this side of the property, with the big house, its back garage, and a few of the pine trees, was spared because of the site's diplomatic status as the Swedish embassy. When the war ended, the Matsukata family was gradually reunited. Japan was a defeated country, and food was scarce. The Matsukatas and their neighbors again planted vegetables in the bombed-out lot.

When their daughter Tané finally returned to Japan in 1948, after 17 years in the U.S., with an M.A. in library science from Columbia University, she really wasn't sure what she could do to help with the rebuilding of her neighborhood, city, and country. She began work at the National Diet Library, but friends and neighbors wanted her to teach their children English. This was Occupied Japan, and they knew their children would need good communication skills. They urged Tané to set up a small school with a varied curriculum and English-language classes so their children could learn to cope in the transformed society. So, again, the educational principles that Tané Matsukata learned from her mother and tutors would be passed along to a new generation on these same grounds.



Thus it came about that in April of 1949, four children began their studies with Tané Matsukata, her sister Haru, and some friends. More teachers were added as the student body expanded, but they needed a real school building. How? Those vigorous Matsukata sisters, decided to sell old clothes to gather the money that was needed. It's hard to imagine in today's Tokyo that you could finance a two-story school building through the sale of old clothes! But that is just what happened. Clothes, in those years after the end of the war, especially western-style clothing, were scarce in Japan. Through their friends in the United States, the Matsukatas received bundles and bundles of clothes through the post. They would jump in their jeep and come back from the post office laden with castoffs from America which were prized possessions here at the time. Can you imagine what a sight it was to see those Japanese women driving around Tokyo in jeeps piled high with clothing? And can you also imagine the long, daily lines of people waiting to buy those clothes that stretched down the hill from present-day Nishimachi to the Juban?

その後、評判を伝え聞いた生徒の数も増えていき、本格的な校舎が必要となってきました。では、どうやって校舎を建てたと思いますか?何事にも前向きな松方姉妹は、校舎建設や教材のために必要な資金を集めるために古着を売ることを思いつきました。今の東京では考えられないでしょうが、当時は古着を売って、二階建ての校舎を建てることができたのです。 戦後直後は、洋服は非常にめずらしかったので、アメリカの友人の協力を得て、アメリカから大量の古着を送ってもらったのです。種子先生たちは、ジープに乗って郵便局にたくさんの古着を受け取りにいきました。当時の日本女性がジープに山ほどの古着を積んで、運転している姿を想像してみてください。とてもめずらしい光景だったと思います。

In this way, the first school building was completed in 1951. Tané decided the school name should be something simple so she just chose the name of this area at that time: Nishimachi. But it was more than just a building. It was the spirit of the shared determination and eagerness of these women and their families to create an alternative education in Japan that made Nishimachi School a reality.

Early Nishimachi teachers attended workshops on American education at the American Occupation schools. Inspired, they decided to change to an all-English curriculum with Japanese as a requirement. One teacher, Miss Hirooka, helped develop the basic curriculum for the dual-language education. She was very strict and never let her students say "we Japanese." She believed that the students of Nishimachi were world citizens. She arranged for extra classes to be taught in Japanese on Saturday mornings as well as for special Japanese classes during summer vacation. That first year the fledgling school held a sports day with a Chinese school in the neighborhood, and it wasn't long before a number of Chinese students also joined the student body. Grade levels were expanded up through junior high from 1963.


After the 1964 Olympics, Japan was gradually brought back into the international community of nations. It signaled the start of great economic growth, attracting people and businesses from around the world. More and more foreign families moved to Tokyo. As students from many nationalities increased in number at Nishimachi, the school adapted to its new situation and the name was changed to Nishimachi International School 1967. The Matsukata House housed the administration and many classrooms. Some of those rooms had been classrooms in Tané's youth, and she enjoyed the new wave of conversions, from dining room to fifth grade, for example, from master bedroom to science lab. Eventually, the lovely garden was tarred over to make a basketball court. I still remember it—with all its cracks, which gave the Vikings a home-team advantage because they were used to the uneven surface.



When I first began to teach here, I had the smallest classes, so was given the smallest room. I loved it. But one day, when Tané's sister, Haru Matsukata Reischauer, the wife of U.S. ambassador and Harvard professor Edwin Reischauer, came by, I asked her about the different rooms in the Matsukata House and how she remembered them as a child. But when I got to my classroom, she laughed and answered frankly, "Oh, it was the closet!" (Over the years at Nishimachi, I also taught in a room over what had been the garage, in the breakfast nook, and in the former kitchen.) She also talked about the family property at Kazuno, Gunma Prefecture, with its old silk storehouse, that has been used continuously since 1970 for school camping trips. Haru actually spent the war years living in that storehouse (okura).

I still remember the very first day I came to Nishimachi: April 29, 1979. It was the occasion of the annual spring festival, and some fourth graders had set up their own game corner. They were running it all by themselves and had created the games on their own as well. They were so kind to the younger children who were playing toss-the-hoop and shoot-the-rubber band and a strange ball throw game. I was surprised to see such young students taking charge, even collecting the money. But I was even more surprised by the caring attitude these children exhibited toward the younger kids who came to play the games. I was also amused because both Japanese and English were being used, not necessarily based on nationality, but as the occasion arose.

When I was working at Nishimachi teaching Japanese social studies, there was one eighth grade class that included the son of the Iranian ambassador that I will never forget. It was at the time when Americans were being held as hostages in Tehran. But not once was there any teasing or isolating of that student by his classmates, even though many were Americans. They looked at him not as an Iranian, but, rather, as one of them, a fellow junior high NIS student, and their friend, Ramin.


I also found NIS to be a place where students have really taken a lot of initiative over the years. The yearbook, for example, wasn't the idea of a teacher. Rather it was the brainchild of some junior high students, in particular one young man from Bulgaria. A Japanese student helped to start the first journalism class that led to publication of a school newspaper. Coming back to the campus regularly as a trustee of the school, I am continually amazed by the variety of ideas and projects of student origin that are the result of the creative and independent thinking the school nurtures— projects that include reaching out to the greater community. Several new buildings and 63 years later, the school still keeps its special spirit.

And so it is that when I look at the Matsukata House I recall Tané Matsukata's inspiration and the strength of the Matsukata family, both products of their having faced head-on the challenges of change. They form the backbone of this school's themes of nurturing each and every child, encouraging the development of students as independent thinkers, promoting sensitivity to differences so they become caring individuals, and providing the experiences and tools that help them develop into multicultural citizens of the world.


Our founder Miss Matsukata once wrote that:
"The changes in Nishimachi School have paralleled in a sense the story of Japan itself. Japan, from being an isolated island country, then as a defeated country, was forced into reaching out to take responsibility as an individual nation needing to participate actively in building the world of today. Nishimachi, too, beginning as a small neighborhood school in Japan has also grown and reached out to take on the responsibility of a much wider perspective for our Nishimachi community."

Thank you.

Nishimachi International School
2-14-7 Moto Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0046 Japan Tel: +81- (0)3-3451-5520

A well-recognized, independent, and coeducational K-9 international school in central Tokyo.

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