Japanese School Tries to Draw Americans to Tenn. Campus

By Joetta L. Sack — June 23, 2004 4 min read
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The first U.S.-based high school accredited by the government of Japan is struggling to survive in rural Tennessee and is considering recruiting American students to stay in business.

The Tennessee Meiji Gakuin, located in Sweetwater, may close in spring 2007, unless administrators can figure out a way to keep it operating.

At present, the high school, serving grades 10-12, has 81 students. It wants to recruit at least 40 more to be economically viable and an academically worthwhile endeavor, administrators say. Already this summer, the school hosted 25 American students, some from out of state, for a joint-learning project.

“My feeling is, for us to survive, we have to become a more international, diversified campus,” said Principal David Emanuel, who wants the summer program to become a mainstay at the school from which to recruit American students.

Many American students, Mr. Emanuel pointed out, have interests in modern Japanese culture, such as popular music or cartoons, or in learning Japanese for their future careers. Such students, he believes, could benefit from attending the school.

Foreign Influences

Tennessee Meiji Gakuin, which is sponsored by Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, opened in 1989 with the hope of attracting students from Japanese families who already lived in the state. Tennessee had about 50 Japanese-based companies at the time; it now has about 240. But the school’s administrators found that pool much smaller than expected.

At a Glance
Tennessee Meiji Gakuin
Sweetwater, Tenn.
Year founded:
81 students, grades 10-12
Annual tuition, room and board:
$25,000 (approximate)
SOURCE: Tennessee Meiji Gakuin

When the school began advertising in Japan, though, it had no trouble recruiting dozens of youths who wanted to learn English and experience an American lifestyle. At its peak, in the mid-1990s, nearly 200 students attended Tennessee Meiji Gakuin.

But enrollment began to decline in the late 1990s because of the faltering Japanese economy. The terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing war against Iraq have cut more deeply into the school’s enrollment.

Prospective students “don’t want to travel, … and that’s been the most difficult thing for us in terms of enrollment,” said Mr. Emanuel, a U.S. native who grew up in Japan and is bilingual.

The school’s board of directors decided in March that it would cut off recruitment of another class of Japanese students, but would keep the school open until this year’s incoming students graduate, in March 2007. The school year runs from late April to early March.

It costs about $25,000, including a flight home, each year to attend Tennessee Meiji Gakuin. The school offers a Japanese-based curriculum that focuses on English-language learning, as well as nondenominational Christian values, exchange-student opportunities with nearby high schools, sports and extracurricular activities, and field trips to larger cities. While it follows the Japanese curriculum, which Mr. Emanuel says is more rigorous than Tennessee’s standards, the school also offers classes in U.S. history.

About 10 percent of its graduates attend American colleges.

Too Little Exposure?

The school is in Sweetwater, a town of 5,100 near Knoxville, because its leaders purchased the campus of a former state-run military school there. Also, parents wanted an out-of-the-way locale, because they worried that their children might be exposed to drugs and crime, according to Mr. Emanuel. A second Japanese-accredited high school is located in New York.

Mr. Emanuel said the school’s rural setting can be a disadvantage, because students aren’t exposed to American life as much as they might be in a larger city.

But Toshiko Kuroiwa, the mother of a third-year student, said the rural location gives the students the rare opportunity of having a community embrace them, an unlikely occurrence in a larger city.

She said her daughter had received a good education, had learned to speak English, and had become more independent. Still, she hopes the school will take in American students to improve their finances and students’ educations.

“They are making efforts to give their students the best possible educational environment,” Ms. Kuroiwa wrote in an e-mail. “However, due to the financial difficulty, what is offered is not always satisfactory to the students, nor to the teachers themselves.”

Meanwhile, some students hope others can have the same experiences they have had.

Shota Maezvawa, a senior, said he has enjoyed staying with American families on weekends and his trips to New York, Florida, and Mexico during school breaks.

“It’s a Japanese school, but we can have experiences like going to an American high school,” he said, “and we can have communication with many, many friends.”

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