Willey, Barbara: Japan: 1954 – 1955: Tokyo

In July of 1954, 150 American schoolteachers left Seattle on board the Navy transport, General William E. Mitchell, destination and assignment unknown. The teachers knew only that they had been assigned to the Far East Command, which included the four main islands of Japan and the island of Okinawa. Previous to their departure, these teachers had been interviewed at leading universities throughout the country, screened and selected as representatives of the American Government to a foreign land.

Their departure followed three days of indoctrination in Seattle, during which time they were given opportunity to turn back as they were reminded that they were going to a land of former enemies where human life is very cheap and nature often chaotic.

Two weeks and two typhoons later, the ship anchored in the breakwaters of Yokohama, the port of entry for Tokyo eighteen miles away. Assignments were handed out by schools officials, and all teachers were transported to Tokyo for further indoctrination. Teachers assigned to Tokyo found themselves in a city of strange contrasts.

Tokyo is not only the capital, but also one of the most important commercial cities of Japan. Tokyo has so hastened from the 14th century to the 20th that it has become one of the oddest cities in the world. Here East meets West in all manner of living. Telephone booths line the streets; rickshaws, streetcars, and autos rush down both broad and narrow ways. Coolies carry burdens on bamboo poles. Modern department stores, banks, and hotels squeeze in beside Japanese homes with their ceremonial gardens and quaint teahouses.

Tokyo is a big egg-shaped city. A little river, the Sumida, runs along one side to empty into Tokyo Bay. In the heart of the city is the Imperial Palace and its surrounding moat. Beyond are the government buildings, foreign embassies, businesses and hotels; all fringed by parks, residential districts, and factories. The suburbs of the city are charming, for here antiquity holds sway. One finds Japanese inns, homes, and landscaped gardens. One of these suburbs, or precincts, Yoyogi, serves as the background for this unit.

Yoyogi Tokyo American School is a bright, cheerful structure of pale yellow stucco. It shows the Japanese influence with its sliding doors and built-in Tokonoma. The school, wonderfully equipped and well run, stood in the center of a typical Japanese village on the site of the former Yoyogi Imperial Parade Grounds, not far from the Emperor Maiji Shrine. The school playground had formerly been the scene of the mass suicides of the Japanese warlords at the close of World War II.

Looking out the classroom windows, one could see all the activities of a Japanese community: the Shiembashi, or story telling man, making his rounds to call the children of the neighborhood together for his pictures and folk tales; the Noodle or Soba man with his eerie horn; the Goldfish man, and the Sweet Potato man, each eager to sell his wares.

The Yoyogi School is the first and foremost school in the Far East and is so mentioned in the book, Windows for the Crown Prince, by Elizabeth Gray Vining. The Yoyogi School, with an enrollment of 1,700 pupils is the largest school in Japan; and until 1949 it was the only school of its kind in the Far East. The school is used as a demonstration school for the Japanese, and as such it is an effective instrument in showing democracy at work.

The children, with various scholastic backgrounds, came from all parts of the United States and from many parts of the world in which there are armed forces of occupation. The children constantly came and went throughout the school year. Rare was the instance in which a child enrolled in a class in September was among those present in June. The children did not have a stable community life such as is found in most localities in the States. Lacking were some of the traditional American institutions which are such a common part of American school life, i.e. the corner drug store for an after school snack and the five and ten cent store for pencils and paper.

The sixty-five teachers of Yoyogi School had been recruited from all sections of the United States and Hawaii and brought with them different philosophies of education. There, those philosophies merged and blended into one cooperative whole.

Teachers entertained and educated themselves in many different ways in Japan. For the classical-minded there was Hibiya Hall and the Imperial Theater in Tokyo. One could see a Kabuki play or a Noh drama, or Bugaku at the Imperial Palace. The Japanese culture teacher who visited the school each week to instruct classes was a constant source of information on Japanese life to both pupils and teachers. There were trips to the pearl fisheries, to the town of dwarf trees, to dolls’ town, to the famous shrines and temples of Japan. In the school, exhibits were frequently displayed of lacquer ware, Japanese dolls, chinaware, clothing, woodblock prints, and other objects of art

Very few were the teachers in Japan who did not avail themselves of the opportunity to take the free courses offered in flower arrangement, Japanese language, culture of the Orient, and other subjects given by the Education Department of the Occupation.

One of the year’s requirements while working in the Orient was to teach a unit on Japan after a sufficient length of time had elapsed for orientation and assimilation. Orientation and assimilation of the Orient is not an easy matter even when one is there, for Japan is a mixture of many Japans.

One Japan is the Japan of ancient days brought about by the help of China during the centuries when Japan shut itself off from the rest of the world. Another Japan is the modern Japan with its inventions and discoveries brought to it by Commodore Perry when he opened its gates to the world over a hundred years ago.

A third Japan is the Japan of today resulting from the last war and the occupation. In the important everyday living it is very often the ancient Japan which still prevails. Today a Japanese child may listen to a radio. She may occasionally wear American style shoes. She still takes off those shoes before entering her home. She still kneels down before the Tokonoma in her living room and there, she still arranges flowers in the age-old way, worked out by her ancestors in ages past before Columbus discovered America.

Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society


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