What is it like to attend the Seattle Japanese School?

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Below I give my personal experience attending the Seattle Japanese School. This was originally intended as a response to this Quora question, but Quora’s browser-based editor was too limiting so I’ve decided to publish it here.

It’s an interesting place, and culturally fascinating, but I think experience varies a lot depending on a variety of factors (like how well you like your local American school1, the education system in general, your affinity with Japan, and so on). For myself, overall, I liked some of the people there a lot, but didn’t really like the way things were run or taught.

I attended the Seattle Japanese School from 6th grade (小 6) to 12th (高 3), graduating all of elementary, junior high, and high schools (it’s all run by the same people, so the division is nominal). I had actually arrived in the US in time to attend the school starting from 4th grade, but my parents didn’t want to enroll me then; they wanted me to assimilate to the US first. The assimilation was actually very successful, because by the time my parents decided to enroll me at the Japanese school in 6th grade, my English was good enough to stop going to the English-language learner program at my public US elementary school (I actually had stopped going after exactly one year), but also my Japanese had deteriorated to such an extent that I actually failed the Japanese school’s entrance examination!

Following such a humiliating failure, my Japanese mother decided to purchase official Japanese language and mathematics (because there are “Japanese ways” to solve math problems) textbooks from Japan to cover the material of 4th and 5th grade. I spent around two months rapidly going through these books, both with my mother and a (grown) Japanese friend who had come to visit the US. The studying paid off, for on the second try I was admitted. (This was not without additional caveats though: the Japanese school year begins in April, but because of the delay in admission caused by the period of self-study, I was only admitted in May, missing the first month of classes for that school year.)

Most of 6th grade was spent alone. I didn’t really talk to anyone, nor did I make friends. I was invited to one birthday party, but I suspect this was simply a gesture (though I did attend)2. This wasn’t really worse than what I was going through in US public elementary school though (I also had basically no friends there—none that I would hang out with out of school, anyway3). Toward the end of the year, we read Kenji Miyazawa’s “Yamanashi” (“やまなし”), which changed things around: the class got into a huge discussion about the true nature of the mysterious kuramubon (クラムボン) that is mentioned in the story. Myself and another boy became the most vocal supporters for one of the positions, and this almost “tribal” affiliation developed into friendship (that is still maintained somewhat today). After that, I began talking to more people in class in general, so the school became more enjoyable.

7th grade (中 1) marks the start of junior high, and classes were now conducted at Interlake High School instead of Odle Middle School. This was also the year when the “cherry blossom” and “rhododendron” cohorts merged4, so the resulting dynamic was amusing to observe. This was also the year when I first started to really hang out with friends outside of school, mostly by playing video games. In September, the school moved to Sammamish High School. Fall is also when the annual “sports festival” (スポーツ大会) takes place; it is actually just a day-long volleyball tournament (for junior high and high school students). As expected, being the youngest ones to be participating, the teams in our grade all failed miserably. One significant thing that happened on this day though: a few of my friends got together to hang out after the tournament, and we all went to my house to play video games and socialize. This actually resulted in my first all-nighter with friends, and continues to be one of my fondest memories.

In many ways, a lot of the later years sort of blur together, because everything happened at Sammamish high school (so no locational distinction to aid my memory), and my friend group also stayed essentially constant. There are a few memories that stand out though, which I suppose I should relate.

more thoughts:

  1. The general trend is, the less you like US public schools, the more you come to “rely on” the Japanese school for making friends, cultural identity, and so forth.

    For instance, I’ve heard several stories of Japanese kids who couldn’t get along with anyone in US schools, who became severely depressed and even threatened violence, etc. These kids, driven by their anti-Americanism, tend to feel more culturally affiliated to Japan and thus more at place at the Japanese school.↩︎

  2. Strangely enough, this person ended up being one of my closest friends at the Japanese school.↩︎

  3. I was also invited to just one birthday party there!↩︎

  4. The Japanese school used to have a system (that it has since discontinued) where during elementary school, the children would be separated into two groups depending on a few factors, like whether the child was expecting to return to Japan and their level of Japanese fluency; the “cherry blossoms”, or 桜, were the ones with more Japanese fluency, while the “rhododendrons” or シャクナゲ, were considered the more “Americanized” ones, who were almost tacitly assumed to quit after elementary school …↩︎