Lin Kobayashi explains that in the high school that she attended in Canada, in the early 1990s, there were 86 different nationalities represented in her year alone. Needless to say, Japan has no schools that could compete in terms of diversity, even today. But, if the 36-year-old Tokyo native gets her way, that situation might be about to change.
Kobayashi is part of a small but well-connected group of people working toward the establishment of a fully residential, international senior high school in the mountain-top resort town of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. At present, they are finalizing the purchase of a suitable plot of land and are hoping to open what will be called the International School of Asia, Karuizawa, in 2013.
“One key difference to the usual Japanese schools will be that the new school will offer the International Baccalaureate,” Kobayashi told The Japan Times late last month. “All the classes will be held in English.”
With English fluency, graduates of the new school will be grounded in an essential tool of international communication, Kobayashi believes, but there is another, even more important skill that she hopes to instill: the ability to lead.
“In Japan, when people talk of leadership, they tend to imagine someone who is very extroverted, a bit arrogant — someone who is really out there,” Kobayashi said. “But I think it is more complex than that. The task of a school is to help children identify their own strengths, to build their self confidence. And if you can achieve that, then you are giving every student the chance to become a leader in their respective fields.”
In order to teach this kind of leadership, Kobayashi believes it is necessary to make the school fully residential, so that all the students live together.
“Leadership is something that can’t be taught in the classroom,” Kobayashi explained. “The school I went to in Canada was a boarding school, and it gave us the chance to interact as groups and in a range of contexts.”
Kobayashi’s alma mater, United World College, a secular school with branches dotted around the world, is serving as a model in another aspect too. “When we were at school we were way out on Vancouver Island,” Kobayashi said. “There was nothing else to do around there, so we interacted with nature and we studied.”
She believes the small town of Karuizawa, which was adopted as a resort town in the late 19th century by Christian missionaries, will provide similarly beneficial isolation.
The plan, which envisions the creation of a school offering three years of senior high school tuition, with about 50 students in each year, has been funded largely by private donations to date. A foundation has been established to pursue the plan, and it boasts an advisory board positively bristling with corporate muscle — Nobuyuki Idei, the former CEO of Sony, for example.
Kobayashi’s key partner in the project is hedge-fund manager Mamoru Tamiya, who is currently sending his children to existing international schools in Japan, but would prefer they went to a school offering even more diversity and a more clearly defined Japanese identity.
“The curriculum of the new school will include not only classes on Japanese language but also in Japanese culture and arts,” explained Kobayashi. Emphasis will also be placed on creative thinking and design.
Kobayashi has scoured the globe to get leading educators involved in building the school’s curriculum. Many of them have been helping out at summer school programs that have been organized for the last two summers in preparation for the school’s opening. Last year, Jim Masker, a history teacher from the independent, residential Cate School in southern California, attended, along with others such as Vancouver School Board teacher Kelley Hishon.
A fter graduating from United World College in 1993, Kobayashi returned to Japan to attend the University of Tokyo. She joined the Japan Bank for International Cooperation after she graduated, and then spent two years at the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“I spent a lot of time working on non-formal education programs for street children in the Philippines,” she recalled. “The kids had to work during the day, so we’d put up notes around the town saying things like, ‘We will do a basic literacy class here in the corner of this park tonight. . . . The kids were so keen to learn once they were given the chance.”
But, Kobayashi gradually started to realize that while she could affect change on a small scale, more fundamental change would require improvements in local leadership.
“The people in leadership positions in those countries — in both politics and business, too — needed to be given education covering ethical mindsets and values,” she said. Kobayashi decided she needed to build a school that would educate the next generation of leaders for Asia.
Kobayashi is keen to point out that the new school will not cater exclusively to children of affluent families. The projected school fees stand at ¥2.5 million for tuition and ¥1 million for boarding fees. But, she says, full scholarships will be offered to a quarter of all students and partial scholarships will be offered to a further quarter.
Furthermore, 30 to 40 percent of all students will be from Asian countries other than Japan.
“The school I attended in Canada was a full-scholarship school. Everyone was on scholarships, and that meant that you had not only diversity of nationality, but diversity of socio-economic background, too,” she explained. “I was at school with kids from Lesotho and my best friends were from Mexico and Nicaragua. It really opened my eyes to how lucky I was, how much I had taken for granted as a member of the normal, lower-middle class in Japan. That was the time I really became interested in the power of education.”
When asked what challenges remained before her planned school could become a reality, Kobayashi explained that completing the purchase of a plot of land would be a key step. “A lot of our donors have pledged money, but they want to see the land — and that’s natural,” she said. “When we get that done, hopefully by March, then things will start to progress more swiftly.”
In the meantime, Kobayashi is working on this year’s summer camp. “Bringing kids together in Karuizawa for the summer camps really gives you a clear picture of the school’s potential,” she explained. Last year she arranged for some students to attend from Myanmar and the Philippines — all on scholarships. And she was touched by what happened as a result. “At the end of the program some of the Japanese students came up to me and said they had been so inspired to hear about the lives of the Philippine students that they wanted to learn Tagalog.”
Applications for the International School of Asia, Karuizawa, Summer Camp 2011 are currently being taken. Children in grades eight through 10 as of Sept. 1, 2011, are eligible. Fees are ¥220,000 and, as always, full and partial scholarships are available. See isak.jp/en/ for details.