Japanese high school in Sweetwatergraduates final class, set to close

Associated Press • Mar 10, 2007 at 9:30 AM

SWEETWATER, Tenn. - Japan's first accredited high school in the United States graduated its final class and will be closing after years of slipping enrollment attributed to heightened security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Tennessee Meiji Gakuin High School is a three-year private academy founded in 1989, mainly for children of Japanese industry executives who moved to the U.S.

The boarding school, with an emphasis on English language instruction, was housed at the 144-acre site of a former military academy and is now up for sale.

Twenty-six seniors returned from Japan this week for Friday's graduation ceremony after completing their courses in December.

They reflected on how their education in the rural hills about 40 miles southwest of Knoxville.

"The first year was difficult because we were always fighting," Mayu Tezuka, 18, said. "But the last year was (the) happy life."

Sachi Tomimatsu, 18, said the quiet, pastoral setting of the school became so comfortable that she was bothered by the crowds and noise of her native Nagasaki.

"I'm sad because no more Japanese (students) can experience this kind of thing," Sachi said.

Their education at Sweetwater prepared them for "a global way of life," said Machiko Tezuka, Mayu's mother. "That's a very good experience for them."

The school once had a peak enrollment of 194 students, but administrators said it dropped after Sept. 11. Visas became harder to obtain and more Japanese parents were reluctant to send their children overseas. The school's board of directors decided in 2004 to close the school with its final class.

A closing ceremony and gathering for students, parents and staff was planned for Saturday. The school is leaving a monument to the city in thanks for the hospitality of local residents.

The students' spirit "was nurtured here in Sweetwater ... from the local people to the teachers," English teacher Hiromasa Okamura said.

More than 160 Japanese companies, including Nissan Motor Corp., employ about 40,000 Tennesseans. In January the Japanese government announced its plans to move its long-time consulate from New Orleans to cover Japanese interests in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

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