Choosing a school for his son, Tokyo-based hedge fund manager Mamoru Taniya ruled out Japan.
Instead, the Asuka Asset Management Co. chief executive officer dispatched then-12-year-old Shinnosuke Taniya to Beijing No. 80 High School’s middle school.
The choice of a public institution in fast-growing China hints at the philosophy behind International School of Asia, Karuizawa, or ISAK, the boarding school Taniya co-founded an hour by bullet train from Tokyo.
“I wanted him to study with hungry, talented students in developing countries,” Taniya said in an interview. “And because there was no school like that in Japan, I thought we should set up an international boarding school.”
ISAK’s global focus tracks a trend among Japanese companies including Rakuten Inc. and Fast Retailing Co., which have made English their official language to develop and retain managers to lead growth that’s increasingly happening outside the country. The idea for the school also came in lessons Taniya said he learned as an investor seeking the “hungry talent” behind good companies.
“Companies where I’ve bet on the entrepreneur tend to be very successful,” said Taniya, whose fund manages about 20 billion yen ($195 million). “Companies where I bet on the business model tend to fail.”
Taniya’s professional peers in Japan typically expect to send their children to schools that guarantee graduates admission to affiliated private institutions such as Keio University or Waseda University. More internationally minded executives are likely to consider boarding schools in the U.S. or Switzerland, or one of the international schools some foreign executives’ children attend in Japan.
Those didn’t appeal to Taniya. Japan still educates students with a mass-production economy in mind, rather than the challenges of a globalized business world, he said.
ISAK, which opens this month as Japan’s first international boarding school, is an effort to offer a much broader cultural environment for students, said Lin Kobayashi, the school’s co-founder and chairwoman of its board.
“Unless we really try to represent the diversity in world society, we’re not really preparing our youth for the future,” Kobayashi said in an interview.
ISAK’s first 50 students come from 15 countries, and 56 percent of them have received scholarships toward tuition and boarding costs of more than 3.5 million yen ($34,000) a year, said Kobayashi. The three-year program will add a class each year until reaching a target of 150 students, she said.
The subsidies are key to the school’s mission, said Kobayashi. By making the school affordable to all economic classes, ISAK can widen the cultural scope of students admitted to beyond the high-income families at international schools in Japan and boarding schools around the world.
Annual fees for grades 6 through 12 at the American School in Japan, one of the Tokyo area’s largest English-language international schools, are more than 2.4 million yen. Yokohama International School charges about 2.6 million yen a year for middle and high school, while International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo charges about 2 million yen. All the schools, including ISAK, have additional charges such as building fees, according to their websites.
Hong Kong International School, which offers priority admission to holders of debentures costing HK$2 million ($258,000), charges tuition of HK$192,000 a year for second graders.
ISAK classes are in English, offering the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. The school is formally an International Baccalaureate candidate for its first year of operation, based on the requirements of the organization that administers the program.
The goal is to provide a model for making education in the country more international, a target Japan’s government is also pursuing with trial programs at public high schools.
“We are starting to be perceived as a beacon of educational reform in Japan,” says Kobayashi. She has a master’s in international education policy and administration analysis from Stanford University, and a degree in development economics from the University of Tokyo.
Identifying the weakness in Japan’s schools has proven easier than correcting it.
In response to rising concern that the focus on passing exams was excessive, the government eliminated most Saturday classes. The policy also encouraged teachers to focus more on teaching kids to think in a more relaxed learning environment.
Average test scores fell and the reforms were largely reversed. Private school advertising had begun to call attention to the decline, luring away families wanting to ensure their children passed college entrance exams.
Japan’s education ministry hasn’t given up on broadening the curriculum. It has designated 56 high schools nationwide as Super Global High Schools intended to “train future global leaders,” according to its website. Students have the opportunity to study abroad and to interact with foreign students, scholars and business leaders.
The ministry also set a target to increase schools that offer International Baccalaureate courses from five in 2013 to 200, according to Kobayashi and data on the ministry’s website.
The focus on change by bureaucrats and social entrepreneurs like Taniya and Kobayashi comes even as Japan’s schools remain at or near the top of international rankings.
Japan followed only South Korea among all countries ranked in the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment 2014 by Pearson Plc., a U.K. based publisher.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 2012 survey placed Japan second worldwide in math skills and first in reading and science, based on surveys of 15-year-olds in member nations.
While Japan’s schools are good at graduating students with high math and literacy skills, they aren’t preparing them well enough to thrive in a globalized world, the data indicate.
The OECD survey found Japan’s students were below average in terms of confidence in their ability to solve complex problems.
ISAK received more than 230 applications for the 50 available slots. The goal of bringing students together in an international environment that emphasizes global values has also resonated with business executives.
The school’s supporters include Kotaro Yamagishi, co-founder and executive vice president of mobile games maker Gree Inc.; Yasuro Koizumi, managing director of investment banking at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in Tokyo; and Masakazu Yanagisawa, prime finance sales director at Deutsche Bank Group in Tokyo.
The backing helped Kobayashi and Taniya, who worked on the arbitrage desk at Salomon Brothers Inc. in the late 1980s, raise more than $15 million for the school, $10 million of which came through donations.
ISAK plans to keep raising money to support scholarship funding to further broaden their applicant base, said Kobayashi, who has worked at Morgan Stanley, the United Nations as a program officer and at the Japan Bank of International Cooperation.
“We believe in the power of diversity,” said Yanagisawa of Deutsche Bank. “This country needs leaders who have different opinions and can persuade others to do something new with people from different backgrounds.”
At ISAK’s forested campus in Karuizawa, traditionally an enclave of holiday homes and golf courses, only 18 students from the inaugural class of 50 will be Japanese. One student from Somalia is attending on a full scholarship along with high schoolers from the U.S. and Chile.
Some international schools in Japan offer dormitories for some students, while ISAK is the only international school with all pupils living at the campus, according to Kobayashi.
While developing the idea for ISAK over several years, Kobayashi and Taniya decided on starting a high school because students at that age have developed within their own culture sufficiently enough to create diversity.
“If you did this in elementary school, students would not have formed the same level of identity,” Kobayashi said. In a high school of kids from a wide variety of backgrounds, you can expect the wide variety of identities needed to foster a global world view, she said.
ISAK’s goal is to prepare students to change Japan, said Taniya.
“I want them to open up this country and to not only embrace diversity themselves, but to teach others to appreciate different perspectives,” he said.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected to show the correct name for the OECD.)