The first thing you notice about the students at Musashino Higashi Secondary Vocational School is their uniforms. No matter the subject — be it gymnastics or computer science — the learning is done in a light-blue tracksuit.

That a healthy mind can only exist within a healthy body is an old Japanese tenet of education. Kiyo Kitahara, who developed the method of education on which the school’s teaching is based, made it her guiding principle. The tracksuits, as well being practical attire for working up a sweat and also conducive to creating a comfortable school atmosphere, reflect this emphasis on physical well-being.

But Kitahara’s philosophy went beyond this, which is why, after opening her first school, a kindergarten, in 1964, she was considered a controversial figure. Kitahara not only believed formal education should be diversified to include physical training, as well as exposure to the arts, she believed it should be open to all students. When one of her first students was diagnosed as autistic, the child was not turned away but made an integral part of the group.

Today, all the Musashino Higashi schools — five of them, ranging from kindergarten to high school, in the Mitaka area of Tokyo — are based on her philosophy of teaching, educating so-called regular students and autistic children side by side.

In her schools, autistic children benefit by having regular students as role models for healthy development, while regular students learn valuable lessons in friendship and generosity toward those who are different. And as they see their autistic peers struggle to succeed at ordinary tasks, regular students find the strength to persevere with their own challenges. With daily three-hour courses in painting, sculpture, sewing, cooking and computers, all students are set on a course for a fulfilling and independent adult life.

The focus of public attention, the schools open their classrooms to some 700-800 visitors annually, including educators, parents, the press and television crews.

One regular visitor is Steve Tootell, one of Tokyo’s leading foreign ceramic artists and the head of the creative and performing arts program at the International School of the Sacred Heart high school. Every January for the past seven years, he has brought his students to Musashino Higashi and reciprocated as host in February.

“It’s good for both sides, this integration,” says Tootell. “It’s not often that we create a whole day or a whole afternoon of free expression. This is an experience of cooperative self-expression with people you don’t know, something we can’t provide among [strictly] ISSH students, who all know each other.”

This year’s encounter at Musashino Higashi began with autistic students performing the tea ceremony for ISSH students. Afterward, ISSH students expressed their thanks by presenting tea-ceremony bowls they had made in Tootell’s ceramics class.

“I was a little nervous at first, but I enjoyed serving tea for the ISSH students,” says Takemasa Ishida, an autistic student.

Later in the day, more than 20 students from both the ISSH and Musashino Higashi schools teamed up to design signboards for Artscape, a Kanto-wide international-school arts exhibition at the National Children’s Castle in Aoyama. They spent the afternoon creating two panels and a mobile on the event’s theme of children’s rights and world peace, using inspirational words and photographic images ISSH students had found on the Internet.

Because many of the students did not share the same language, the project was an experiment in alternative forms of communication for both sides.

“At first, to tell you the truth, I was wondering what I could do with ISSH students in the art exchange,” says Masaki Morita, a 10th-grader at Musashino Higashi. “But once this project started, I really enjoyed making a billboard with them, and as time went on, I found I could communicate with them through gestures and the few English words that I speak.”

For Cassidy McGeehan, an American student at ISSH, breaking the language barrier through art was the highlight of the trip. “Most of us couldn’t express ourselves very well in their language or they in ours. Art was the common language,” she said. “I found it nice the way we were able to communicate on an art-based level while painting a rainbow, a bird and the sun, and how it would symbolize freedom, reaching out to children that are in need of help.”

For Yue-li Lee, a Japan-raised Taiwanese from ISSH, simply being exposed to the way the students at Musashino Higashi work — as well as how the two different school groups could work together — was an eye-opening experience.

“Just by going to the school, you can experience an environment surrounded by art.

“I was surprised by how much we accomplished in an hour-and-a-half.”

Tootell believes these excursions are a chance to give his students valuable insight into exciting new ways of learning. Also, like the Musashino Higashi faculty, he believes that the experience students gain from learning to cooperate with children different from themselves is invaluable.

After the visit, ISSH students agreed that they couldn’t say for certain which students were autistic and which weren’t. The consensus was, it really didn’t matter.

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