Oldest international school’s closure leaves many questions

by Rob Gilhooly

Japan’s oldest international school closes its doors today, leaving behind a 99-year legacy that started as a result of nationalist upheaval and ended under a cloud of bitter protests and suspicions of greed.

Just 13 students of the class of 2000 will attend today’s graduation ceremony at St. Joseph International School in Yokohama, although it’s likely they’ll be joined by several hundred alumni and former staff, many of whom still remain in the dark as to why the school is to fold.

St. Joseph was established in 1901 by Marianist brothers as an all-boys Catholic school to provide education for children of the foreign community here. Approximately 1,500 students have graduated since, including Charles J. Pederson, the 1987 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner.

St. Joseph’s closure was announced in late 1995 by the school’s directors, who cited financial woes, a dwindling religious faculty and decreasing numbers of foreign students as the reasons.

An organization to protest the decision was immediately established by parents, alumni and teachers, who suggested a number of ways to counter the problems outlined by the school board.

Each suggestion was turned down flat, Parent-Teacher Organization members said.

“No concerted efforts were made to increase the numbers of foreign students,” said Philippe Eymard, who spent a total of 24 years at St. Joseph, first as a student and then as a teacher, and whose son was a student there at the time of the announcement. “All of the problems stated could have been solved. I still believe it was all a plan.”

Although St. Joseph’s principal, Brother John O’Donnell, refused to talk to The Japan Times about the future plans for the school building, Brother Yasuyuki Taue, chairman of the school’s board of directors, said that “in the case of the school’s closure, any assets remaining after calculations (for liabilities and so on), will either be returned to the school or a public entity according to the law.”

One alumnus said he had no doubt the land would be sold off.

His research into the issue had revealed that the land on which the school is located started as a 99-year permanent lease hold but now the Marianists have “complete ownership of the land.”

The property, he said “is located on the biggest piece of land available on the most expensive patch of land (in the area).”

Kanagawa prefectural officials, he said, had also revealed that the Marianists “can transfer the right to the land to any private party.” A major land developer has already put in a bid for the land, he added.

“Rumor has it (the Marianists) will give up the land, which I think they’ll be happy to do since their reputation has been tainted in the community,” the former student said on condition of anonymity.

A Kanagawa official said that while the land cannot be used for development by the school per se, it could be sold to a private party on condition that any funds accrued from the sale of the land be handed on to either another educational institution or a publicly owned entity.

Some alumni say that St. Joseph is effectively controlled by Gyosei Gakuin, one of the original Marianist-run schools in Japan, and thus they have no doubt about where such funds might end up.

Suits against the religious order by PTO members, who were advised by Kanagawa Prefecture officials that it would be difficult to close a school with some 200 students without the PTO’s acceptance, have cost the Marianists dearly, said former PTO member Marie Fujita.

After the first court case in 1996, the Marianists opted to settle the dispute by declaring they “would keep the school open as long as students were there,” Fujita said.

“But they reneged on that decision,” added Fujita, whose daughter was a student at St. Joseph at the time. “A new principal was brought in who started saying the school will close at any time and that the wording of the settlement had been misconstrued.”

According to former teacher Eymard, the final straw came when a letter regarding payment of school fees for the 1998-99 school year informed parents that the fees had been increased 30 percent.

“This was just one of the tactics used to try and get rid of the students,” he said.

Another tactic, said Eymard, was the board’s “exiling” of the former principal, Father James Mueller, to Osaka in 1996. Five other brothers were sent to other Marianist schools as they were thought to be too sympathetic to the students and parents, he said.

“James Mueller was a man who had actually made efforts (to attract students). He was sent to Osaka and told not to set foot on Yokohama soil again,” he said.

Meanwhile, Fujita said that in a separate court case, the Marianists had agreed to pay 80 million yen compensation to students and families who had been inconvenienced by the closure.

Class of ’66 graduate Chiaki Homma said a major concern for many alumni was to secure preservation of the school’s history, if not its continuation.

Homma is hopeful that in the event of the land being sold off, a portion will be set aside to preserve the school building.

Brother Taue said that, in accordance with the law, this was unlikely.

One of the 13 students graduating today spoke of mixed emotions about her big day, saying she was “sad” about the school’s closure but “honored” to be among the last graduates.

Asked what she thinks will happen to the school, she said: “Everyone says it’s a mystery, but that land — It’s worth a million. What do you think?”