JAPAN: My School Years – 1938 to 1944

Although life in the church, not in schools, dominates memories of my childhood, for the sake of marking the periods in my life, for convenience, I will describe my school experience.  I will deal with church life in another chapter.  As a child, I must have been unconsciously aware that my country was foreign, if not hostile, to my religion.  I was never comfortable in schools.  I never had close school friends; my close friends were always from the church.  I guess it was indicative of the reality Christians faced and still do in Japan.

When I  was in grade seven, there was a survey of parents’ occupation.  In the middle class neighborhood of Tokyo, most parents were engaged in the corporate and civil service sectors.  At the very end of the questionnaires was a category for Religion.  Another boy and I raised hands.  My schoolmate came to me afterwards and asked, “Where is your dad’s ‘Tera’?” Tera is a colloquial word for Buddhist Temple.  I told him what our religion was and where my dad’s church was located.  He looked at me as though I came from another planet.  I suppose our society looks at the children with turbans or yarmulke and side locks in the same manner.  Anyhow, the school to me was an uncomfortable place.  There were many Christian schools that I could have gone to, but my parents never sent any of us to Christian schools, except kindergarten.  I don’t know why.

AIRIN YOCHIEN  – “Love Thy Neighbor” Kindergarten – 1935-38

I liked Airin Yochien.   Airin (Love they Neighbor) Yochien (Kindergarten) was an easy walk of one block south and one block east from the manse of my father’s church in the port city of Yokohama, a half and hour west from Tokyo by train.  Cherry and oak trees lined the streets and furnished canopies where we lived.  Cherry trees blossomed into bright pink blooms in the spring and turned into fresh green after.   In the fall, fruits scattered all over the ground.  Then pavements were covered in dark purple from fallen cherries, and with acorns and brown leaves from the oak trees.  Both the church and the kindergarten were on the hill overlooking the port.  Cranes and ocean-going ships were familiar sights as I walked to and from the kindergarten.

Women missionaries of the American Methodist Church founded Airin.  When I went there, the head-teacher was a middle age American woman by the name of Winifred Draper.  I remember a grey haired person who spoke Japanese with heavy accent.  She was kind, always smiling, which, in retrospect is amazing considering how I behaved in the kindergarten.  After the WW II she sent me a pair of real leather red shoes.  I had no shoes then.  I tinted them black before I wore them to school; Japanese boys didn’t wear anything red during those days.

Now that I know how missionary societies were run, I wonder if the whole Airin enterprise was a Draper family venture, nominally associated with the Methodist Missionary Society.  I say this because I remember seeing Miss Draper’s parents and a sister at their home all the time I was in the kindergarten.  I didn’t get the impression that they were just visiting; they were definitely living with Miss Draper.  They lived in a huge (at least in Japanese standard) house in another part of Yokohama city where many foreigners lived.  Every year the whole kindergarten went to their home for a picnic and sports day.  That was where I saw for the first time a big back- yard with lawn.  Japanese gardens of the middle class families have hills, ponds, cedar and pine trees, and moss covered rocks,  but no grass.

I liked the kindergarten.  I think every child at Airin did.  Where else can you find a kindergarten where old friends get together for reunion every now and then, even sixty years later?  Airin was on the south side of the road surrounded by the hedge of evergreen bush.  On the back of the building away from the street was the play ground with a spectacular view of the port.   There were sees-saws, swings, a jungle gym, and a sand box.  There was a large cage many pigeons.  I must have liked, and spent a lot of time in the playground, because I remember it better than the inside of the building.

Speaking of pigeons, I remember a near disaster episode.  I always felt sorry for the caged birds.  One day when nobody was looking, I opened the gate and let all the pigeons fly away.  The whole kindergarten was in an uproar.  The whole kindergarten was in an uproar.  The children were told to stay inside.  The birds stayed on the roof of a large mansion on the other side of the street.   All the grown-ups, the teachers and the caretaker –  did everything possible to attract them to back into the cage, spreading bird seed everywhere in the play ground.  One young woman, probably a childcare student on placement sitting on the ground with both hands full of birds’ seed.  I knew that none of these measures would work.  And it didn’t.  By noon, they gave up, and came inside to do afternoon activities.  But by evening, the birds were all back in the cage waiting to be fed.  Miss Draper once told my parents that I was as bad as American boys.

I remember other incidents, though I never thought I was being bad.  At a Christmas concert, I was in a group of children singing in a choir.  At one point, I decided that I had to be the conductor, so I got up in front and started conducting.  When another group was singing, I appreciated the performance so much that I went onto the stage and danced.  My aunts said I had a reputation.  When the caretaker found that somebody varnished her new piece of furniture – I think it was a sideboard, everybody decided that I had to be the culprit.  Caretaker didn’t like the colour.  I didn’t do it, but I was not harshly spoken to or punished.

I remember two teachers besides Miss Draper.  They were Hori Sensei and Murakami Sensei (sensei means teacher.)  They both wore kimono with hakama (long pleated culotte-like trousers) and hair in the buns tightly done in the back.  I can’t imagine anyone working in those uncomfortable kimonos, but in those days kimono was the norm as a working clothes.  Miss Hori wore her hair a little bit more loosely and a little bit more stylish, while Miss Murakami smiled kindly but had an air of “ I-don’t-suffer- nonsense.”  Miss Murakami played piano when we sang.  They both must have graduated from the Canadian Methodist Women’s Missionary Society’s Junior College in Tokyo, “Toyo Eiwa”, the only childcare training college around Tokyo at the time.  My mother and a sister, Junko, both graduated from the same institution.

On a Christmas day one year, Miss Hori and Miss Murakami invited our family to their upstairs living quarters for a “proper” American Christmas Dinner.  Miss Draper sent turkey dinner so we could have a taste of American Christmas.  We all sat on the tatami mat around the low table, and put a large cardboard box which had in it everything for Christmas dinner on a huge plate.  I remember the sight of thinly sliced dry white meat, some carrots, mashed potatoes, and something brown and gooey – it must have been gravy.  We ate it with chopsticks.  I didn’t think too much of it, though it was sort of OK.  Meat was too dry and tasteless.  So I ate lots of carrots, the only thing I could relate to.  After I left Airin, both Miss Hori and Miss Murakami get married and left.  It is unthinkable today that marriage means the end of a woman’s career.  But it was a norm during those days.

It was fashionable among the middle class Japanese families to send their children to kindergarten in those days.  My friends came mostly from well-to-do families.  I remember being very impressed by colorful and stylish kimonos mothers wore when they came to the kindergarten for special occasions.  My mother didn’t have expensive kimonos, being a wife of a poorly paid minister.  I could smell expensive perfume too.  I felt humiliated on show-and-tell days when my friends brought to show off the kinds of toys we couldn’t afford.  I didn’t know that my parents couldn’t afford them until Santa Claus failed to bring me what I asked for – the same toys my friends brought to the kindergarten.  I began to hate being a minister’s kid already.

In spite of this doscomfort, Airin Yochien was much better than any school I went to afterwards, because it was explicitly Christian.  I could relate to the language, customs, and stories of the place.  Most of my friends were not from Christian homes, but Christianity was the norm in Airin Yochien.  I went to three elementary schools and two high schools afterwards, but some friends from the kindergarten were the only ones who still keep contact with me.


Loose tummy and me

“One Pine Tree” is a strange name for a school even for Japanese.  But it was the name for the elementary school I attended in Yokohama.  Even funnier was the fact that despite the name, there was no pine tree in the school compound.  Instead, there were many cherry trees.  The Japanese school year begins in April, so it was a spectacular sight with all the cherry blossoms in full bloom when I went to the school for the first time..  So it was the season for the cherry blossoms.  I walked four city blocks south through a residential district clutching to my mother’s kimono sleeve.  The school was huge; two stories U shaped long wooden building with about one thousand children.

Classes were segregated into boys’ and girls’, but I had a woman teacher.  She had about 50 boys in my class.  I don’t remember her name, but she looked smart and tough and  I was scared of her.    I tried everything possible to avoid the school.  One day, I had a bad case of loose stomach.  The teacher told me to go home.  It gave me an idea.  Often, I had to ask to be sent home because of loose tummy, but sometimes I lied.   On one of those untruthful moments, the teacher smiled and said, “I guess you got tired of me already today.”  I was found out but was allowed to go home.  I sweated a lot.  It was no longer fun to stay away from school lying.  I never repeated the same mistake.  The teacher earned my grudging respect.  It was about this time my life long affliction with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) began.

At any rate, I don’t know how my IBS actually started.  According to one of my aunts, I had a bad case of diphtheria when I was four, and stayed in a hospital for ten days.  And she claims that my life-long bowel problem began with that episode.  Funny thing is, I don’t remember being so sick.  Besides, I would have thought diphtheria had nothing to do with the digestive system.  Anyhow, how to cope with a sudden attack of diarrhea has been a life long challenge for me.  I became familiar with friends’ homes between my home and school, where I could borrow their bathrooms in emergency.  Now I know that a sudden drop in the barometric pressure triggers an attack.  That explains why I have so many memories of running and looking for the next nearest friend’s house in the rain or snow.  Likewise, after traveling to many major cities of the world, I can boast my amazing knowledge of bathrooms in those cities.

Dawn of sexuality:

Ipponmatsu became a tolerable place a year later after a girl who came to the Sunday School found me in the playground, and decided to pick on me and have fun.  She was a couple of years ahead of me in the school but in the same class in the Sunday School.  I was smaller than average boys, that didn’t help.  She and a gang of girls started to chase me around the playground yelling something menacing.  When they caught me, they surrounded me and gave me a hard time.  It wasn’t anything close to what might be called bullying but wasn’t honorable for sure.  There was no physical abuse, but was all verbal.  This went on all through the spring.  The girls enlarged the target group beyond me, and to some other boys in my class.  The buys who started to help me get away became prisoners themselves. I began to enjoy it, even though I had to pretend to be horrified by such humiliation.  The memory is that of sweet rather than bitter humiliation.  It is mixed with the memories of springtime at Ipponmatsu,  a beautiful time with cherry trees all in full bloom.  You might call it my sexual awakening.  Some of those girls’ homes became my vital rest stops.
Speaking of sexual awakening, I have a puzzling memory during those early school days.  I remember two earliest occasions when I had a ‘hard-on’.  One of them was of a homosexual nature.  I must have been in grade three.  A classmate of mine, who was sitting a few seats ahead and two rows on the right, tilted his head back touching the desk behind him.  The boy who was sitting behind him began to stroke his hair.  I watched it and had a hard-on.  The boy hose curly hair – unusual for Japanese –  was small and good looking.   He wasn’t my friend nor was he an object of my sexual fantasy.  I consciously tried to stay away from him after that, probably because I was embarrassed.  I still don’t understand my reaction.  It could be my awakening of sensuality; hair is a sensual thing.  But I don’t remember any consciousness that comes close to homosexuality afterwards, ever.  I have always been heterosexual.

The other experience is easy to understand.  Someone took me to a revue, and we saw a chorus line of dancing girls.  It was the first time I saw women in skimpy clothes kicking up their heels showing their underwear.  But this too is puzzling, because during those days at hot springs in Japan, mixed bathing was a norm.  Seeing naked women at the hot spring was anything but erotic. Nobody in Japan made fuss about mixed bathing until the American occupation forces stopped it.  I guess sexual awakening begins with fig leaves not nakedness.

At the end of grade three, my father was transferred to a downtown church in Tokyo.  So my sister Taeko, who by then was finishing grade two, and I moved to another school in Tokyo.  Before I left One Pine Tree School, my teacher gave a little speech with me standing beside her in from of the class.  Her comments surprised me a little.  She said something about my gentleness, generosity, and kindness.  I was not a bully nor was violent for sure, but not even mischievous?   What a difference from kindergarten days!  I guess I was a little apprehensive about the school all the time.  Saying ‘good-bye’ to Ipponmatsu was not a tearful affair.

TAIMEI (Advancing Enlightenment) ELEMENTARY SCHOOL 1943, April)

A taste of high society and I hated it.

Taeko and I were in Taimei School only for a month.  It may not be worth mentioning about such a short stay, except for an overwhelming and unforgettable sense of humiliation I felt while I was there.  Taimei was a famous elite school in Tokyo, located in Ginza, the best and most fashionable business center, like Fifth Avenue by Central Park in New York.  We were able to attend the school thanks to the Universal Education Act, which was just passed into law making all the public schools available to everybody free of tuition.  The alumni of Taimei was like a  “Who’s Who” of Japanese literary and entertainment world.  The school was a smart looking concrete building with artistic murals with decorative tiles.  There were many trees, which created an atmosphere of green oasis in the middle of downtown Tokyo.  It had everything a school should have, well-equipped gym and auditorium, tennis courts, art and sound studio, in fact everything and more.

All children wore smart, expensive uniforms, and practiced snobbish customs, many of which were expensive to follow.  My parents never bought us uniforms, which by then was not required as schools were free and compulsory .  I hated to go to school without the uniform looking so different from other kids.  But the school administration couldn’t insist on uniforms, even though the old regime probably wanted to keep the old system despite the new law.   I forgot most of the strange rules because our stay was so short,  but I remember well was a prescribed menu for nutritional home-made lunch.  Teachers spot checked our lunch boxes to make sure our parents followed the instructions.  We came from a poorly paid minister’s family.  So, my mother had to cut corners from time to time.  One day, I left my lunch box somewhere in the school; another child picked up, and turned it in to the school office.  So the teacher told me to go and pick it up.  The school secretary inspected my lunch in view of many people in the office, because there were a few other lost-and-found lunch boxes.  I felt humiliated, because it was not up to Taimei standard.

After staying in the manse in downtown for only one month, we moved to a rented house in Setagaya, a suburbs on the western edge of Tokyo.  Taeko and I entered another school.  I don’t know why we moved.  But I was so happy that we didn’t have to go to Taimei.  It was only after I grew up and our family started to live in Ginza, I realized that the many of the school children at Taimei were children of geisha or of concubines of prominent people in business and politics.  Nonetheless, I hated the stuck-up atmosphere of high society.

SAKURA (Cherry Blosom) ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ( 1943 – 46)

Discrimination, persecution, and the beginning of the World War II

The school was called Sakura Elementary School.  Today, Setagaya is a bustling business and residential center.   Tokyo is made up of many centers, Ginza, where my father’s church was, being the best known.  However, when we moved to Setagaya, it was still very much rural.  We rented a newly built house which must have been a part of the beginning of suburban development; it was still surrounded by farmland and woods.  In front of our house was a large patch of market garden vegetables.  I often watched the farmer plowing the field by hand and fertilizing it with compost and manure.  I still remember the pungent smell of nourishing mixture he spread in the early spring time.  He often grew cabbages and soybeans there.  Whitish-yellow butterflies covered the whole cabbage patch.  It was dream-like scene.  There was also a huge wooded property beyond the market garden field.  On this property, there stood an old manor of the former feudal deputy governor.  The house must have been a few centuries old.  There were still many old fashioned thatched roof houses in the neighborhood.  Old pine, cedar, zelkova, camphor, and oak trees covered the whole area..

The Sakura School was old and more poorly equipped than Taimei.  It was an old U-shaped wooden building.  It was so old that wooden floors splintered.  We had to be careful with bare feet.  Japanese do not allow outside foot wears to be worn inside.  The norm in many public buildings like schools and churches is to change shoes at the entrance and wear soft-soled inside footwear in the building.  By the time the Second World War began, everything became suddenly so scarce and expensive.  I still remember the despair when I saw all candies disappeared in the candy shop.  Many children from lower income families didn’t have spare pairs of shoes and were barefoot in the school building.  The school had no auditorium or gym, neither was there a swimming pool.  The building itself smelt musty.  But there were many huge trees, cherry, ginkgo, and oak trees in the school compound.   School playground was bare earth, unlike the tarred surface of Taimei School.  The ground was muddy during the monsoon, dusty the rest of the year.  So we must have been dirty most of the time; but I didn’t care; boys aren’t bothered by dirt.  My mother cared less about dirty feet than my aunts.  When I went to my grand parents’ home a few houses away, my aunts were often after me making sure that I washed my feet before I went into the house.

My class mates came from mixed background.  There were farmers’ children, new suburbanites like us whose fathers commuted to government offices and businesses in the city centers, rural poor who lost their jobs as farm land was turned over to developers, and some ghetto children of mainly Korean background. There were even a very few Europeans.  In terms of social classification, we fit in quite well, because we were only one of many minority groups.   We were happier in Setagaya, because the population was mixed.  But still being a Christian in an increasingly nationalistic Japan was not a pleasant experience.

World War II began with an attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1945.   Militarization of the whole country suddenly became visible everywhere including in the school program.   It became more difficult to be a Christian even as a child in an elementary school.  The chapter on the persecution and mass execution of Japanese Christians during the 16th century in the history text book often triggered abuse of Christian children by class mates and sometimes even by teachers.  One time, my sister became ill because of such treatment by her teacher.  When a spell of abuse by class mates was especially fierce, I skipped the school pretending to be sick.   I was lucky to have a very nice teacher for three years, who must have known how I was treated by some classmates.  He was subtle but protective of me.  He was a good looking man and was very popular among girls, even though he was a boys’ class teacher.  He got married while he was my teacher, and a while later he brought his new-born baby to the class.  I liked him.  I even when to visit him at home.  In retrospect, I realize now that such an unannounced visit of a student must have been annoying to his family.  But I didn’t know.  I stayed a long time and ate a lot of rice crackers and drank cups of tea.

The great persecution of Japanese Christian converts in the 16th Century by the Shogun authorities was taught as a Japan’s way to fight back the advancing the western colonialism. Christianity was termed in the history lessons as a .precursor of western imperialism.   In retrospect, I am in agreement with such a view, especially of 16th Century Roman Catholic counter-reformation represented by Society of Jesus.  Christianity was brought to Japan by Jesuit priests; among them was Francisco Xavier.  The Jesuits were remarkably successful.  The speed with which the Roman Catholic Church gained massive converts, especially among the nobles,  must have been frightening to the Shogunate, which just secured the total control of the country after a nearly century of internal strife..  Protestantism, which was allowed in during the 19th Century, did not have such blatant imperial intentions, but it did represent a further incursion of westernization and hence another blow to the Japanese spiritual tradition.  The military very much wanted to spread such a view of Christianity, hence determined the tone of history text books.

Racism against Koreans and Chinese people was at its worst during this time.  Many Chinese and Koreans were brought to Japan by force as laborers.  Korean children in the school from a nearby Korean ghetto had a terrible time.  People said Koreans smelt bad and were dirty.  They smelt garlic and they dressed poorly.  Their diet, in fact, included kimchi which had a lot of garlic and is nowadays considered a delicacy.  Of course, they dressed poorly, because they were paid pittance.   They lived in poverty.  However, it is interesting that Korean children attended the same schools as Japanese children.  In that sense, there was no discrimination.  But they were so often the targets of the racist insults and ill treatments.  In other parts of Japan, there were Chinese children in the schools who were under the same circumstances.  The worst insult one child hurled to another was, “Omae no tosan Shinajin!”  – “You dad’s a Chinese!”  One thing I admire about Korean kids in my school was that they fought back.  They organized gangs and often bullied the weak Japanese kids, me being one of them.  Nevertheless, as a member of another abused minority group, namely Christians, I secretly envied their guts.  Forming a Christian gang was not possible, because there were too few of them, perhaps less than ten in a school of one thousand children.

Some schools had tiny groups of Jewish and White Russian refugees children, whose families had come to Japan via China after the Bolshevik Revolution.  I remember one particular White Russian boy.  He was admired because he was physically bigger, faster, stronger, and taller.  Also according to the lingering racial stereotype of the ‘liberal 20”s Japan’, he was seen as more beautiful because of white skin.  I never knew any Jewish child, but I suspect they were treated like the White Russian boy was treated – not  too badly.  After I came to Canada, I met a Jewish woman who had grown up in Japan.  Her first language was Japanese.  She had married a Canadian after the war and came to Vancouver.  I felt strange speaking in Japanese with a white woman.  She spoke the language like a Japanese person, unlike Miss Draper who spoke like a foreigner – with accent.  She didn’t have any bitter experience in Japan even during the difficult time of war.  She wanted to be our friend because she didn’t want to lose her Japanese language. I personally wasn’t aware of Anti-Semitism during the war years in Japan.  I found much later that the military had tried to emulate Anti-Semitism in order to harmonize with the Nazi policy.  But Japanese populace saw only color white, and continued its admiration of the white race.


On December 8, 1941 (according to Japanese calendar, which is a day early we were called out to the playground for an emergency school assembly.  The principal read something we didn’t understand.  It was an address by Emperor Hirohito announcing the declaration of war against the allied nations – Britain, China, Holland, and the United States.  It was written in an ancient form of Japanese language, incomprehensible for ordinary people.  The principal had to explain what it meant.  It was a cloudy day, damp-cold.  And I felt chill in my bones, because I was dreading this day for sometime.  For a couple of years since we moved to Setagaya, I often overheard my mother talking with my aunts about the possibility of a war with America.  They didn’t seem to understand what was going on politically, but knew that Japan was going to fight our friends – people we loved.  Another reason for their dread was that they knew there was no way Japan could win.  So they were talking about bombing, fighting on the streets, people killed, etc. in despair.  So while the principal was reading the news clip about the “glorious victory” at Pearl Harbor, my mind was totally dark.  “Miss Draper, help me!” was the first thing that came to my mind.



Because I always felt inferior in school, when the day of the entrance examination for the middle school came, I had absolutely no confidence in being admitted into any public middle school.  I could have easily entered any Christian School, which at the time was considered to be easier and inferior in academic standards.  I do not know why my parents didn’t send me to a Christian School, but I know that I was good enough for any good school..  There were 48 public middle schools established by the Tokyo Metropolitan government.  Students were admitted into appropriate schools, based on the result of the entrace examination.  The best went into the First School as was named, the next best into the Second, so on.  I was so timid that took exam at the 48th School, only to find myself admitted into the Tenth.  When I saw the result, I could not believe my eyes.  So I asked my mother to come with me to see the result again which was posted on the bulletin board.  So I started my high school at theTokyo10th Middle School, which later became Tokyo Nishi High School, because the US Occupation Forces did not like the elitism and discrimination inherent in ranking the schools.  However, the elitist practices of the first ten schools still continue today in many latent manners.  Teachers still advise students that only the cream of the class apply the schools which used to be the first ten elitist  high schools.
I still remember a question at the interview: the cause of the war against the Allied countries.  I just memorized the page on the history textbook and recited it.  I did not understand what the text meant, but it was something to do with expelling the western imperialism from Asia.

The school was run like a military boot camp.  We all wore military type of uniforms and had to salute the teachers on the streets like soldiers.  As a part of the school curriculum,  an army officer – a lieutenant – and his sergeant ran military drills twice a week. I was never good at drills, in fact I always got ‘F’.  I am glad that the war ended before graduation, because Military Drills was dropped as a school subject .  So those F’s didn’t affect my average.

Of course, there were other school subjects taught by regular teachers.  Some of the teachers were fanatical nationalists, but others were not.  I remember a history teacher.  He was very funny; his class was always full of laughter.  In retrospect, he was very critical about a lot of historical accounts in the textbook.  But he always told us funny and often juicy stories, about such things as Chinese emperors’ concubines or sex life of Napoleon, etc. He never referred directly to the events in Japan in the same fashion.  But he taught us a healthy critical attitude towards authorities.  Few of us understood the subtlety of his critical views; nevertheless he was playing a dangerous game.

NUMAZU MIDDLE SCHOOL – April – July, 1945


By early 1945, the war was near the end.  The US Ai

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