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Saturday, April 11, 2009
International school built to serve
One man's dream gives science city of Tsukuba first official international school
Early last year, Masayasu Kano, a seasoned schoolteacher, quit his local private high school to take on a new challenge. He had only a couple years left until retirement.
The challenge was to create a world-class international school for the children of foreign nationals residing in the science city of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, some 50 km northeast of Tokyo.
Late last month, the Ibaraki prefectural government gave final authorization for Kano's international school — a specialized school institution, with Kano serving as its operator and principal. With that authorization, Kano moved a huge step closer toward meeting the challenge and realizing his dream.
"I ended my career at the high school with satisfaction after having taught English to Japanese students for almost 30 years," the 58-year-old Kano says. "Now I am determined to devote the rest of my life to the creation of a world-class international school."
Tsukuba International School (TIS) aspires to become that school. TIS is actually not a new institution, but an expansion of a small-scale private school that had not been recognized officially as an international school, and that had been operated since 1992 by American missionary Timothy Boyle.
Kano's determination to devote the rest of his life to "international education" stems in part from his having helped during his days at the high school to dispatch some 40 students to overseas pre-college schools under a program of the United World College. The UWC is an international nongovernmental educational organization that brings together high school students from all over the world with the aim of fostering peace and international understanding.
Kano's interest in international exchange and English in particular, however, started at a much younger age. He was 19 when he saw the moon walk on television on July 20, 1969. Not only intrigued by the great achievement itself, he also remembers being impressed by the masterly simultaneous interpretation from English to Japanese. The experience, Kano says, sparked his interest in English as a communication tool for exchange among different cultures. Work directly involving English, however, was not to truly gel for Kano for several years.
Born in Chiba Prefecture into a long line of medical practitioners, Kano had assumed from an early age that he would carry on the tradition. Unfortunately, he failed in his initial bid to enter medical school and, spurred by his new interest in English, gave up the idea of medicine completely and joined a two-year college specializing in the study of English. He later entered International Christian University in Tokyo as a transfer student and studied teaching Japanese to non-native students.
Upon graduation from International Christian University in 1975, Kano volunteered to teach Japanese in El Salvador under the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program.
El Salvador may seem an unusual choice, but Kano explains. "The JOCV, the Japanese version of the U.S. Youth Corps, was at that time the only place I could find immediate work teaching Japanese to non-natives."
Actually, Kano, who was crazy about rugby in his college days, confides that he first asked the JOCV secretariat to send him to any country in the British Commonwealth so that he could spend his free time playing rugby. The secretariat had other ideas, however, and recommended that Kano become the first JOCV volunteer to El Salvador.
In later years, a JOCV official told Kano that it was actually because of his strong physique that he was sent to El Salvador. "I was told I had the rugged look of a pioneer," Kano says with a grin.
Kano stayed in El Salvador for 3 1/2 years teaching Japanese to officials of the foreign ministry and to students at a national university there.
It was a turning point for Kano. "The experience was an eye-opener for me. I learned from the El Salvadoran people that human dignity can never be measured by economic affluence. More importantly, I was taught that life is for us to enjoy."
Another turning point in Kano's life came in the fall of 1978 when, still in El Salvador, he received a letter from a Minoru Okamoto, asking him to be an English teacher at a planned private high school in Tsukuba.
Without hesitation, Kano accepted this offer, returned to Japan and immediately joined the preparatory work with Okamoto for the establishment of the new school. The school, Meikei Gakuen, was opened in the spring of 1979 with Okamoto as its first principal.
There he taught until a fated meeting in 2006, when Kano met Timothy Boyle for the first time at a meeting of the Tsukuba Science City Network.
"Boyle confided to me that his small operation was under chronic financial strain, which necessitated a frequent change of classrooms from one place to another. To make matters worse, (Boyle) was assigned to move to Kobe," Kano explains. Boyle asked Kano to take over and, the following year, Kano accepted.
With that acceptance, Kano realized that in order to move closer to realizing his dream, he would need to expand the school and make a bid to receive official accreditation as a proper international school.
To the surprise of his former colleagues, friends and relatives, Kano used his personal assets — money, land, even his house — for the new school project. "I spent my retirement allowance and the inheritance from my father, who died three years ago, to finance the construction of the new school building and other necessary expenses," Kano said.
He purchased another plot of land near his own loghouse home to construct the new school building.
Completed last month, the two-story structure came at a cost of some ¥125 million. The school's assets amount to ¥170 million, with a significant contribution from Kano's wife, Chieko. Chieko, also an ICU graduate and former JOCV volunteer in Malaysia, is currently a professor of Japanese language education at Tsukuba University.
Chieko was supportive of the project from the start. "She told me to do as I liked," Kano says, and adds with a smile, "She also promised that she would 'feed me till the TIS project is put on track.' "
All subjects at the school are taught in English, using an international curriculum that has been adapted to its multicultural classrooms. Over the next few years, the school intends to develop a curriculum that will follow the standards and practices of the Swiss-founded International Baccalaureate's (IB) Primary Years Program.
"My school's comparatively low tuition fees are still heavy a burden for foreign researchers, whose salaries are not necessarily high," Kano says apologetically.
In order to lessen this burden, he has been asking his friends and colleagues in the community to donate toward a scholarship fund. So far, he has raised ¥6.6 million from 80 individual well-wishers.
Kano believes that two of the most important aims of education are a "receptiveness toward different cultures and an ability to co-exist with the natural environment." He believes these are especially crucial for the coming generations of youth. "The multi-cultural and multi-national environment at my school and its location on wooded land make it well-suited."
The city of Tsukuba itself is also highly multi-national. In it are located some 400 governmental and private-sector research laboratories or educational institutions accommodating some 3,600 foreign researchers, scholars and students. A total of 7,200 foreign nationals from 130 countries are registered as residents in the city. Yet, until now there has never been an authorized international school in Tsukuba.
A survey by the Ibaraki Prefectural Government in February 2006 found that more than 60 percent of the 283 respondents working at 14 public and private research institutes in the city said they would opt to have their children enrolled at an international school where education was in English.
"The launch of this international school is just a steppingstone for me," Kano says. Aiming yet higher, he adds, "My ultimate goal is to set up a United World College school in Japan, preferably in the city of Tsukuba."
For more on Tsukuba International School see: www.tsukubainternationalschool.org