As we were looking to move to Tokyo, we spoke with a number of folks about where they sent their kids for schooling. It’s a significant concern. Some people opt for the three-to-six months of torture and frustration known as linguistic immersion and enroll their kids in Japanese school (think our good friends, the Krebs) while others (more rightly) insist on English tutelage. We heard opinions about the all-girls school, the American School, and the International School. In the end, despite Frank Ha’s support for Tokyo International School (TIS), we opted to follow Archie’s much more enthusiastic endorsement of the American School in Japan (ASIJ). It seemed to have better after school programs, a connection to the Early Learning Center (ELC) where Afton and Lea would be enrolled in kindergarten and pre-school, and quite a few fans among the expats. It didn’t hurt that during the tour of the ELC I was able to watch the little tinies learning to sumo wrestle with full-size sumo wrestlers. Any chance you get to watch a 30 lb 4 year-old try to push around a 400 lb sumo wrestler, you’ve gotta take it.
Turns out, all the great things we heard about ASIJ were true. They had numerous after school programs, great teachers, active student counselors, an elementary school principal named Dan Bender, who always remembered all our kids’ names, and a wonderful facility. We had no trouble getting all our kids in, which surprised a number of the members of our ward who had kids on waiting lists for quite a while, but I suppose that comes with the territory when your kids are as stellar as ours are.
The things nobody really talked about, though, began to add up:
The school was going through a pretty serious leadership crisis, and couldn’t keep a board of directors, PTA president, or a head of school during that time.
The campus was located in Chofu. If you’re thinking, “wait, I thought you lived in Tokyo,” that’s a reasonable think. We did. Chofu was about an hour west of where we lived by bus. That might not be too bad, until you remember that when we got there, Porter was 8 and Reid was 6. Bus came at 7:00, and if they didn’t do any after school activities, it came home between 4:30 and 5:00. If they did after school activities, which was one of the big plusses for this school, they got home around 6:30 to 7:00. Their days were as long or longer than mine at times.
It was pretty tough for Betsy to be an active participant in the school. Because it was so far away, it cost about $30 in tolls to go out there, and the policies for volunteering were pretty rigid: at least two hours, scheduled at least ten school days in advance, and train schedules that took about 30 minutes longer than driving all combined to make it pretty challenging for Betsy to get out there and back within the confines of the half-day schedule the girls’ were in at the ELC (located in Tokyo).
When we arrived in March, we didn’t feel most of these challenges because there was so much new and challenging going on associated with the move. After the first summer, when Afton joined the boys on the bus and we got them into after school programs (karate, soccer, chess), we started to notice some fraying edges in our kids’ behavior, most notable in how easily anger became the default response. Now, you may not know it, but Andersons are not known for their patience, and that patience is particularly absent when we lack sufficient rest. Our kids start to show it about the same time I do. They also need time with their parents. So we switched them to TIS, and it was like a Robert Frost poem about making all the difference. The school was a 10 minute walk away, welcomed parental drop-bys with enthusiasm, and gave our kids two hours a day back to just be kids. We loved it and cannot endorse the Tokyo International School more highly.
The kids still got to ride a bus (very important part of going to school for them), but Betsy could drop by with lunch if they forgot it, while still being close to the ELC. She got to be the official yearbook photographer for the ELC, and an active volunteer at TIS in all three classes. The student body was significantly more diverse at TIS as well. Our kids seem to have American friends through church and international friends through school, and we love it.
We came to realize that the folks who were extolling the virtues of ASIJ all had older kids who were more able to handle the long commute, probably resented any parenting time they were forced to endure, and for whom the whole thing was an escape. We also saw that there were different styles of living abroad, and one of them was characterized by creating an American environment for familiarity and comfort. Some folks really enjoyed things like the American Club, the American School, and other things that helped them stay connected with home. I expected to be in that camp, as I am quite patriotic and proud of America, but we found that it wasn’t so. We were often uncomfortable at the American Club, and were fortunate to find our tribe with the parents of kids at TIS.