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Futabakai a school away from school
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff

Following Japanese tradition, students in Tomoya Tada's math class bow at the end of the lesson at Futabakai in Arlington Heights. The year-round school specializes in teaching Japanese children.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Students make their way to English class.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Students make their way to English class.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

The energetic headmaster, Shoji Matsudaira, discusses the school and its students.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Sixth-grade teacher Makio Amano leads his class.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/28/2008 12:08 AM

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Buffalo Grove High School was tough for Toshi Kimbari.

Most of the 500 students in his freshman class came from one of two middle schools. They all knew each other. All played the same sports, wore the same clothes.

Kimbari, 15, moved to Arlington Heights last fall, leaving California and a school he loved behind.

So Kimbari, who is fluent in Japanese, transferred to Futabakai.

"Everybody is new here, so everybody is friends," Kimbari said. "No one feels left out. It's not like other schools."

Futabakai is a Japanese school plopped in the middle of Arlington Heights. The school educates Japanese students who are in the Chicago area for a limited time -- usually a few years -- so they can return to schools in Japan without missing an educational beat.

Japanese, not English, is spoken in the school hallways. Students bow to teachers before and after each class.

No cafeteria or sports teams exist for the year-round school that starts in April. Students bring homemade ramen and sushi lunches from home. They eat at their desks with their teachers.

"Eventually, the students will go home, to Japan," said Kikuo Miyamoto, the school's administrator. "But here they can take classes just like in Japan."

Some students are fluent in English and have years of American schools behind them. Other students have been in the country only a few months and know no English at all.

But Futabakai is similar to American schools in some ways. The school day is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and a recorded bell sounds signal the end of classes.

Ryan Christie, 26, graduated from Iowa University and taught English in Japan for a year before joining the Futabakai staff almost two years ago.

On the first day of the school year in April, Christie welcomed a group of second-graders. They sat at old desks, the kind with tops that flip open to store notebooks and pencils. At the start of class, Christie asked the new students to raise their hands. He had to repeat the question in Japanese before four shy hands went up.

"OK, everyone throw out their garbage," Christie said during class.

New students followed their classmates to the garbage container and returned to their seats. For the first few weeks, learning English is a lot like playing follow the leader.

"For new students, the beginning is listening," said Diane Strack, an English teacher who has been at the school for 11 years. "But then after a couple weeks, they can say, 'Hello, how are you?'"

"It's different than most American schools here, that's for sure," Strack said. "Kids get homework but want more; they thank you after class for teaching."

More than 40 years ago, members of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce -- with the blessing and financial backing of the Japanese government -- founded Futabakai because more and more Japanese families were moving to the Chicago area. Many were on temporary assignment with U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese companies or worked internationally for U.S. companies.

There are Japanese schools in New York and in California, but Futabakai is the only one in the Midwest.

The Japanese government pays for the school's textbooks and rent and also assigns teachers from Japan to three-year terms, although some local teachers are employed to teach classes such as English and art. Japanese families and local businesses in the area also contribute.

In 1966, the school had three teachers and 49 students and met in a Baptist church on Chicago's North Side. It's grown fourfold since then.

In 1978, the school moved to Niles.

Twenty years later, Japanese families began to move northwest, and Futabakai followed. Since 1998, the school has been in Arlington Heights. Mitsuwa Marketplace, a few miles from the school, is home to a Japanese grocery store and 15 specialty shops.

Futabakai recently signed a 10-year contract extension with Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 to rent the former Rand School for another 10 years, paying an annual rent of $375,206.

Today, about 200 students in kindergarten through ninth grade attend Futabakai, which splits students up into grades like American schools.

The kindergarten class was added this April.

Students come mainly from Schaumburg, Buffalo Grove and Hoffman Estates.

Shoji Matsudaira is Futabakai's new headmaster. He almost runs through the school hallways, nodding at teachers and patting students on the tops of their heads.

"It's great to be here," said Matsudaira through a translator. "The students are well-trained and very polite."

They also get special visitors. Last year, former White Sox player Tadahito Iguchi swung by and talked to students.

Kei Kunimatsu, 13, came to Futabakai in 2004 after attending South Middle School and Dryden Elementary School. Kunimatsu's parents were born in Japan and his family will return there eventually, so he decided to give Japanese schooling a try.

"I guess I miss the sports -- there aren't sports here," he said about the differences between Futabakai and regular American schools. "But I play baseball at the park district and video games at home with my friends."