Little Japan in Moscow: one day at only Japanese school in Russian capital
It’s 2 September, and the streets of Moscow are full of smartly dressed kids with bunches of colourful flowers and anxious parents tagging along. The air is full of the sounds of school bells calling students to their first class this year.
But in one cosy neighbourhood in the southwest of the Russian capital time seems to have stopped. The pink-and-yellow school building, surrounded by a bright-green fence, radiates a sense of calm and harmony.
There is a rank of small blue school busses outside the entrance. A friendly game of soccer is in progress on the football pitch, which has a nice view of the tall Moscow State University building not far away.
The third and the fourth floors of this building house the Japanese School, the only one of its kind in Moscow.
Established almost half a century ago, the school has become a miniature version of Japan for the children of Japanese diplomats and businessmen living in Russia. The school's curriculum is fully in line with the universal Japanese standards approved by the Ministry of Education in Tokyo.
"You can see for yourself, everything here is exactly like it is in Japan," says the school headmaster, Mr. Sirakawa, pointing at the classes timetable. "The only difference is that we also have Russian and English language classes."
The school strictly adheres to the standard Japanese curriculum so that children of the Japanese expats working in Moscow don’t have a problem continuing their education once they are back home in Japan.
The school has four separate mottos, the main one being "モスクワでの生活を豊かにする子 (Children who enjoy their lives in Moscow)". Based on what I have seen, the team of 13 Japanese teachers and several Russian ones seem to be doing everything they can to live up to that motto.
The number of pupils studying at the Japanese school in Moscow has been growing steadily in recent years. "This has a lot to do with the improving relations between our two countries," Mr. Sirakawa says.
When the school first opened, it had only 16 pupils; by 2012 that number had grown to 126; today it's 145.
It is very quiet on the third floor. We approach one of the classes to take a peek inside, trying not to make any noise. All we can see is dark-haired kids listening to the teacher with great attention.
Suddenly there is a splash of water; it turns out that there are three rather inquisitive turtles living in a plastic box near the aquarium full of small silvery fish.
Then a melodious bell comes - it actually sounds a lot like the Big Ben in London – and the silence gives way to children’s voices.
Some of the kids are heading for the canteen with their lunch boxes; others play merry games in the corridor.
We come up to the fourth floor to take a look at the natural sciences classroom and the staff room, which looks like a miniature office.
The headmaster says that unlike the Japanese kids studying in Russian schools, the children here don’t have a problem communicating with their peers; the language of communication here is Japanese, with Russian and English classes only once a week.
Setting up a Japanese school also helped to solve another problem all those years ago. In regular schools, Soviet kids didn’t have access to the brightly coloured pens and pen-cases their Japanese peers had brought from Japan, so they would often just take them by force. Sometimes Japanese children ended up simply refusing to go to school.
Now that problem has been solved: the Japanese school in Moscow is open to all kids who have Japanese citizenship and whose parents are prepared to pay the school fees (which start from 270 dollars a month).
Naturally, the Japanese pupils also maintain contacts with their Russian peers. The Japanese school often holds joint culture and sports events, as well as joint classes, with two lyceums in Moscow.
Many Japanese parents are also keen for their children to attend ice hockey and ballet classes after school, given that Russia has always been very strong in both areas. That is why Japanese kids have plenty of chances to become friends with Russian children.
They have even more chances to practice their English: the same school building also houses the Swedish, Finnish and Italian schools, so the pupils of all these schools often play together in the same schoolyard.
Meanwhile, the bell sounds once again, and the whole building once again becomes very quiet. Bright sunlight coming through the window illuminates a set of nest dolls on top of a cabinet; placards with Japanese hieroglyphs; a theatre stage with the four school mottos on the wall; and careful rows of small trainers on the floor.
A chorus of children’s voices can be heard from behind the door. The school is in the middle of the classes, which will end just before 4 pm.
The picture is the same day after day, year after year, with the exception of short school breaks, which the younger kids often spend travelling around the historical towns of Russia’s Golden Ring, while the older pupils visit Eastern Europe. There have already been school trips to Lithuania and Latvia; this year the destination is Poland.
In another four years’ time "Little Japan" will mark its 50th anniversary; we are definitely going to attend the celebrations. Meanwhile, this coming October kids from the Japanese school will perform at an arts event in Izmaylovo; we are going to be there as well.