At first glance it seems to be a typical lunch break at a local Japanese school: Boys rambunctiously chasing one another and yanking at each other’s white polo shirts, little girls twirling so hard in their pleated gray skirts that they fall down with squeals of glee.
But look closer and you notice that although the signs on the wall are familiar, the Chinese characters are written in simplified form, unlike Japanese “kanji.” A group of lanky adolescent boys in navy blazers start kicking around a fuchsia-feathered shuttlecock, or “jianzi,” instead of a soccer ball.
“Ne ne, ore ne, hao chi de bing gan aru yo ne!” a little boy shouts, holding some biscuits up like a prize as he switches fluidly back and forth between Mandarin and Japanese.
Welcome to the Yokohama Yamate Chinese School, which boasts a more-than-century-old cultural tapestry steeped in Chinese values deeply interwoven with Japanese influences.
The Yokohama Chinese School was established in 1898 by Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, during his exile from the mainland. The school aimed to assuage the worries of parents that their children might lose their Chinese identity growing up in Japan.
In 1952 the school split into two factions due to the political tensions between mainland China and Taiwan. The supporters of Communist China broke off to form the Yokohama Yamate Chinese School at another site, while the supporters of Taiwan stayed behind at what became the Yokohama Overseas Chinese School. Both schools claim to be the first Chinese school in Japan. Of the five Chinese schools in the country, only the Yokohama Yamate Chinese School and the Kobe Chinese School are oriented toward the mainland.
One of the main differences between the two types of schools is that simplified Chinese is taught instead of traditional Chinese in pro-mainland China schools. They also teach Pinyin, a romanization system for standard Chinese, while the Taiwan-oriented schools teach Zhuyin, which uses phonetic symbols. However, the Taiwan-oriented schools are starting to teach simplified Chinese and Pinyin to offer a more well-rounded education.
Of the Yamate school’s 413 students, 30 percent are Chinese nationals, with the rest having Japanese citizenship. Ten percent of the student body is ethnically Japanese.
“Chinese people feel the need to be infused with the Chinese culture, logic and ideology,” Principal Pan Minsheng explains. “The Japanese people enroll because they realize what a big and powerful force China is. China and Japan are also closely intertwined in many aspects of life, politics and culture. It is therefore beneficial for them to learn more about the Chinese culture.”
Although separated only by a narrow strip of water, war and occupation have left China and Japan divided by a wider gulf, exacerbated by ongoing political, historical and territorial tensions. However, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and great efforts are being made in both countries to build on growing ties. Perhaps both sides are finally heeding the wisdom of the Chinese proverb that says, “A good neighbor is a found treasure.”
During his state visit to Japan in May — the first by a Chinese president in a decade — Hu Jintao set aside time for the school, perhaps recognizing that the students may come to play a critical role in bridging the gap of understanding between Japan and China.
At the end of a worn-out hallway decorated with hand-painted artworks, Pan pulls open a sliding door to reveal a class of children reading out loud with perfect pronunciation from Chinese textbooks. Shutting the door behind him, Pan then pulls open another sliding panel; in this class the students are bantering with their teacher and each other in fluent Japanese.
In the school’s kindergarten, children are mainly taught in Japanese, while primary and secondary-level classes are taught in Japanese or Chinese depending on the subject. English is also taught from the fifth grade. Chinese schools also encourage student-initiated learning, where the children learn as much from themselves and fellow classmates as from teachers and textbooks.
“As you can see, in this class they are all learning Japanese,” explains Pan. “The students are proactive and discuss among themselves. They are learning when communicating with each other.”
He points to the nearest table, where two students are quietly eavesdropping on our conversation. “Hey! Discuss!” he barks good-naturedly, getting giggles in response.
The Yamate school only teaches up to junior-high level, but according to Pan all students go on to pass entrance exams for high-level Japanese senior high schools and transition easily into the Japanese school system.
Unlike other international schools in Japan, which tend to focus on readying students for life outside Japan, Chinese schools like Yokohama Yamate aim to prepare their students for Japanese society, while keeping their Chinese cultural identity intact. In effect, the school aims to teach each its students how to be both Chinese and Japanese.
When asked where they were from, a crowd of fourth-graders eagerly shared their varied answers.
“I’m Japanese, and Chinese,” said a serious-looking boy named Bozhi, a first-generation Japanese-born Chinese.
“We’re from China!” proclaimed two girls, Zhenxin and Chongmei, and another boy named Fangwei. All three were born in China and are being raised in Japan.
Mandarin and Japanese poured forth in a strangely comfortable cadence among the boisterous bunch, and there was no preference for either language. But the younger students tended to favor one language over the other, depending on which is spoken at home.
“I’m Japanese. I like Japanese class the best because it’s easy. I got 99 on my last test,” confided Akiyama, a shy 6-year-old who speaks Japanese at home to her Japanese father and Chinese mother.
A cheeky boy runs up to the principal and tugs his sleeve insistently. “He hit me, he hit me!” he hollers. The principal ruffles the boy’s hair. “This little boy can speak Cantonese too. He speaks three languages!” he says proudly.
The Yokohama Yamate school, like all other Chinese schools, encourages a tightknit community environment. The atmosphere in the school seems to be almost familial between faculty and students.
In the courtyard, a young teenage boy is seen playing down his basketball abilities with the eager primary students. All over the school, similar interactions suggest a close bond between the students.
“All the students clean their classrooms on their own,” says Pan. “But for the first-graders, the older students cleans the classroom for them.”
Mrs. Ogawa, a Japanese mother who sent her two daughters to the school, appreciates the strong bonds it fosters. Her husband worked in China for a brief stint, and upon his return the couple formed friendships with Chinese people.
“We thought that if it was possible, we should let our child mix with Chinese people from a young age and let them know that there are all sorts of people in the world, not just Japanese,” she explains. “It will make them more flexible and open-minded.”
Despite the fact that the majority of the parents are Chinese, Ogawa says she has never felt out of place. She even picked up basic Mandarin so she could pronounce the names of her daughters’ Chinese friends and teachers.
Looking at the sea of enthusiastic young faces, it is as impossible to pick out which student is Japanese or Chinese as it is irrelevant. Within the walls of the school there is no differentiation between the two ethnicities, only the celebration of both.
“In the school, we are all parents — we have the same worries and the same happiness. Japanese people have to mingle with the Chinese to truly understand them,” says Ogawa. “It is important to form opinions from interpersonal relationships, not just from what you see on television. At the end of the day, we aren’t that different after all.”
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