There Is Always A First Time
M is a recipient of the French Native Language Award, but contrary to popular belief, her father is not French. He is Japanese. A hundred percent. He calls himself the domestic product in the family. His employment requires him to represent Japan in the international arena of diplomacy. But he did not really think it was necessary for M to learn Japanese. He decided early on that she was going to attend international schools. Even when we live in Japan.
That sounds like his decision was based on some lofty ideal. I suspect though that with very few Japanese schools outside Japan, he simply wanted to avoid going on a foreign assignment on his own. This is the man who could not make instant noodles until the invention of the cup noodle. Boil water, and pour it into the cup. Cover for three minutes. Voila. Ready to eat.
After spending six years abroad, we were back in Japan. M was seven years old. And she was going to be a third grader at the American School in Japan (ASIJ). Because my husband cannot cook, and will not eat cup noodles everyday on foreign assignments.
The Japanese Constitution requires all Japanese children to be in school for nine years, starting at the age of six. And school means learning institutions recognized by the Ministry of Education and Culture.
ASIJ does not have the Monbusho’s stamp of approval. And M being a Japanese citizen has to be in school. We had a problem. And my husband gave me the mandate to deal with the matter. He was much too busy with global issues.
The Japanese are very systematic people. And the Japanese government is very efficient in keeping track of the whereabouts of its citizens. The Japanese are required to register with the local government office. No registration. No services. Including health services. Unless you were willing to pay the full price. And health care is prohibitively expensive.
The city of Koganei knew that the our family has come to live within its boundaries. They knew that there was a girl named M who was seven years old, and who had to be in school. M and I went to visit the local government office before they came calling on us.
It was July, and the young government employee with his sleeves rolled up, was very polite.
Mommy: My daughter will not be attending the local school. She is going to the American School in Japan.
Man: Yes. Yes. I understand.
This was too easy. I was afraid there was some misunderstanding.
Man: You realize though that you are giving up your daughter’s rights to a Japanese education.
Mommy: Yes. Yes. I understand.
This was going to be easy. No misunderstanding at all.
Man: She will not be able to come back to the Japanese education system later. Even if you want to.
Mommy: Yes. Yes. I understand.
That was not a problem. M would be attending only international schools. Because her father refuses to survive on cup noodles on foreign assignments.
Man: Well, thank you for informing us.
And that was all there was to the matter of nine years of compulsory education in a Japanese school.
M was free to attend ASIJ. I suspected we were breaking some kind of law, but it really did not matter. The young man at the local government office did not seem to think there were any problems.
Until M decided she wanted to spend a summer in the local Japanese school. Taiken nyugaku. A special program for Japanese kids who lived overseas. They came home for the summer, and experienced life in a Japanese school. We knew lots of children who did it. And it was a great way to maintain Japanese language skills.
M was learning Japanese in the class of native speakers, and a month or two in the local Japanese school would do wonders for her Japanese. She was eager for the experience.
The nearest elementary school was a five-minute walk away from our government employee apartment complex. I went to see the the Principal. He was a very friendly man, and the school had some experience with taiken nyugaku. He welcomed the idea of M attending the school for a month. It would be an enriching experience for everyone.
But I had to get the permission of the local government.
No problem. I remembered the polite young man at the local government office. I went to see him the next day. But there was a different man sitting at his desk.
Mommy: I am here to register my daughter for taiken nyugaku.
Man: You cannot do that. You do not live overseas. Taiken nyugaku is only for Japanese children who live overseas.
Mommy: Oh. I did not know that.
I went home. I called M’s Japanese teacher. She speaks of students in her class who do taiken nyugaku every summer. Unlike M, many of them have never lived overseas. They are Japanese, but they go to ASIJ because their parents want an English education for them.
I make a few more calls. I learn that foreign children at ASIJ also do taiken nyugaku. Most of the students of ASIJ, foreign and Japanese, live in Minato district though. It is in central Tokyo, an area concentrated with expensive housing for expatriates. A world away from Koganei city.
Mommy: M, do you really want to do taiken nyugaku?
M: I would like to improve my Japanese.
The next day, I was back at the local government office. I sensed that no one was happy to see me.
Mommy: I am here about taiken nyugaku for my daughter.
Man: It is only for Japanese children who live overseas.
Mommy: But Minato district lets Japanese children who live in Minato district do taiken nyugaku. They also let foreign children do it.
Man: You gave up your daughter’s right to a Japanese education when you enrolled her at ASIJ.
Mommy: I am here for taiken nyugaku. She is going to the local school only during the month of June and July. The school principal is willing to have her.
Man: She cannot do taiken nyugaku.
Man: She does not live overseas. She is a resident of Koganei city.
Mommy: That is a strange reason. We are residents of Koganei, and we pay local taxes. But you will not provide the same services that you will provide for children who live overseas, and whose parents do not pay taxes to Koganei.
Silence. I should have gone to law school.
Man: It has never been done before.
Mommy: There is a first time for every thing.
Man: I am sorry but it cannot be done.
Mommy: Let me talk to your supervisor.
The man calls his supervisor. A man much older than him.
Supervisor: I am sorry but it cannot be done.
Mommy: Who makes the decisions on these matters?
Supervisor: The Koganei Board of Education.
Mommy: Will you please relay my request to them?
Supervisor: Yes, I will. But we have not done it in the past.
From the local government office, I went to pick up M. In the car, at the railroad crossing, while waiting for the train to pass.
Mommy: Do you really want to do taiken nyugaku?
Mommy: Are you sure?
M: Because it would be good for my Japanese.
I started thinking of my attack strategy.
Koganei City was a part of the Greater City of Tokyo. The local government office was under the supervision of the central office. The local board of education was under the jurisdiction of the central board of education.
I am the wife of a national government bureaucrat. I know how the system works.
I spent most of the next morning on the phone. And I was not going to bother with the local guys.
A call to the education department in the central Tokyo office confirmed that there was no law limiting taiken nyugaku to Japanese children living overseas.
A call to the central board of education confirmed that Japanese children living in Japan can attend the local Japanese school whenever they wish. It was their right, and enrolling in a learning institution not recognized by the Ministry of Education did not deprive them of this right.
I then called my husband. I knew that he was sitting next to a man who was on loan from the Supreme Court. This man was a judge.
Mommy: Just ask him one question. If I sued Koganei city for not letting M do taiken nyugaku, would I win?
My husband disliked being called at work. He did not understand why I was going through so much trouble for taiken nyugaku. And he did not think I would get my way. He was a bureaucrat, and he knew the system. It has never been done before.
But my husband knew that once on the move, I was unstoppable. He asked the judge.
The judge was a lot younger than my husband. A very approachable man. He looked at what the constitution said on education, and he figured that I should probably go ahead and sue Koganei City.
Mommy: M, do you really, really want to do taiken nyugaku?
Mommy: You know what I have been doing to get you this experience?
I have always discussed everything with M. She told me about her day. And I told her about mine. She was fully aware of what was happening. And she knew the meaning of a lawsuit.
Mommy: Are you really sure?
I was back at the local government office the next day. For the third time. I asked to speak to the supervisor. They were definitely not happy to see me, but everyone was polite. The Japanese are always polite.
Mommy: Did you relay my request to the Koganei Board of Education?
Supervisor: Yes. And I am afraid your daughter cannot do taiken nyugaku. She does not live overseas, and we have not done it in the past.
Mommy: I know. And I understand.
After years of living in Japan, speaking Japanese, and eating Japanese food, I am almost Japanese. And I am very polite.
Mommy: But I have been talking to the education department at the central office.
The supervisor looks surprised.
Mommy: I also called the central board of education.
He was visibly surprised.
Mommy: And I have called the Supreme Court for advise..
Half truth. Half lie.
Mommy: And I have consulted a lawyer.
A hundred percent lie. The supervisor was beyond surprised. He was speechless.
Mommy: And I am afraid that unless my daughter is allowed to do taiken nyugaku, I will have to sue the city of Koganei for depriving her of the right to an education.
It was a threat. A very polite one. But not exactly an empty threat.
Mommy: Please ask the Koganei Board of Education to reconsider their decision.
I went home and waited.
The next day, I had to be in school to help out in the library. I liked doing this. It gave me the chance to look at all the books, and take note of what we would like to borrow for summer. The librarian knew that M was a voracious reader, and she let us have all the books we want. More than seventy in one summer.
The call came while I was out. A message was left on the answering machine.
Supervisor: I am calling to inform you that your daughter is more than welcome to attend the Midoricho Shogakko for the months of June and July. Her presence would greatly benefit the children of the school. They can all learn from each other. We have contacted the school, and they will be happy to help you with all the paperwork.
I called the supervisor to thank him for all his efforts on our behalf. It was a very pleasant conversation. He was Japanese, and I was almost Japanese.
Just not Japanese enough to let the past hold me back. There is always a first time. For everything.