The Birth of YIS High School

The Birth of YIS High School

by alumna Mary Corbett '(75), with assistance from alum Arthur Yoshinami ('74) and former YIS staff member Ed Bernard

As the YIS community prepares to celebrate our centenary in October 2024, it is worth taking a look back at the genesis of our high school which this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class of Dragons.

Classes at YIS were initially conducted in rented rooms at the local YMCA in Yamashita-cho in October 1924, serving 6 students between the ages of six and twelve. YIS was the first international school in Yokohama to offer a non-sectarian and co-educational learning environment. St. Maur and St. Joseph’s were already long established institutions on the Bluff by the time YIS came along. 

Though many foreign residents in Japan were forced to repatriate during World War 2 and YIS school buildings were burned to the ground in the air raids, student enrollment rose again postwar with the support of the foreign business community. The school was reopened on the original site in 1955 with 8 students enrolled. With the immense success of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Japan entered the period of its “economic miracle”. Foreign companies began opening offices in Japan in large numbers, which created a growing need for schools to cater to the children of foreign families moving to Japan; Japanese families based overseas wanted a non-Japanese education for their children upon repatriation, and children of Christian missionaries who had established roots in Japan needed a non-Japanese education. A clear demand for a high school thus became a priority issue for YIS and its future.

As Edward Bernard, a 24-year-old new history teacher in 1968 with a fresh Master’s degree from Queen’s University in Canada, recalls, “the school was overwhelmingly expatriate, made up of a large number of Americans alongside the British, Dutch, Scandinavians and quite a mix of other nationalities. The Main Building on the old campus was just being built.”

“In December, 1968, Headmaster Ansley Glass called us together in the staff room,” Ed recalls. “He asked us if we thought we could add a year at a time to create a High School. He asked each of us. Ian Kerr, Science teacher, replied “yes”. Chantal D’Attainville, French teacher, replied “yes”. Valerie Mance, English teacher, replied “yes”. I and a few others also replied “yes”. 

The young teachers brought together on that historic day expressed their confidence to move forward, and preparations quickly took shape. The timing of this decision essentially sealed the fate of the ninth graders in 1969 to become the de facto senior class of the school for the next four years. The school had joined The International Schools Association of Geneva (ISA) which still exists today.

Under the next Headmaster, Stan French, the first Food Fair in the spring of 1969, according to collective memory, was held to help raise funds for establishing the high school. YIS students wrote to international schools around the world for support, and received donations of handmade crafts, toys, and a wonderful array of foods and sweets still rare in Japan at the time, making the first Food Fair a most memorable success.

Despite the enthusiasm of staff, students and parents, YIS’ high school  was still considered by many as an unproven experiment, and many parents chose to move their children to ASIJ, St. Mary’s, and other schools in the Kanto region. Classes in grades 6 and 7, which averaged 30 to 40 students in each grade during the 1960s, were generally reduced by half in high school due to students transferring to other schools. 

Students of the Senior class at Yamashita Park, courtesy of 1973 alum, Leslie Helm (pictured standing on the far right).

Regardless of the hardships the school encountered, the Bluff was a very close knit community in the ‘70s, when many of the houses from the Washinzaka area south of the school, and all the way to the Sacred Heart Cathedral and beyond, were occupied by long time foreign residents well known to the students. Students had the luxury of attending Boy Scouts and workshop activities on the US military bases in Yokohama, and at St. Joseph’s school, which boasted Boy Scouts Troop 1 in Japan, or joining the Sailfish Swim Team, composed of students of over 20 nationalities living in Yokohama, including those attending the French and German Schools as well as the US base schools. YIS was represented on the team in considerable numbers, and contributed to winning Kanto League titles, a particularly impressive feat considering the team had no home pool. Swimming practices were held at the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, the Yacht Club (closed in the 1970s after extensive landfill in the area) and U.S. Navy pools in summer. In winter, practices were held at Seiko Gakuin School, near Yamate Station, and even through renting a couple of lanes at public pools. The YCAC provided opportunities for those who wanted to compete at high levels of rugby, football, tennis, as well as judo, under renowned judoist and later YIS teacher, Sei Matsumoto. The U.S. Navy often provided buses to the swim meets. The new YIS high school also excelled at speech and math contests, and in producing popular stage productions. Seniors Leslie Helm and Ronaele Swanson, who led that charge ever since the high school’s inception, are remembered in perpetuity for their dominance as the swashbuckling hero and leading lady in virtually every play of the years leading up to their graduation in 1973.

YIS still managed to field impressive ‘varsity’ teams for the first time which competed in the Kanto League, though it often meant the teams had to recruit 13- and 14-year-olds to play against the older athletes of the opposition. It also meant that virtually all high school students were on call for just about every sport and Kanto Plain competition, providing exceptional grounds to nurture versatility and school spirit. 

By their final year, the Class of ‘73 had nine seniors, three of whom were first year students at YIS. Among them were Anne Miller, studying under tutors in preparation for her Baccalaureate, an exam virtually unknown in Japan at the time; Eric Boisseux, looking for a change of scenery and arriving in Japan on a virtual whim to stay with his father who was living here; and Anne Ross, all the way from South Africa. Rounding out the extraordinarily eclectic first graduates were long-time Yokohama residents Mark Whittaker, Marco Yaocong Liem, the gentle class ‘revolutionary’; Leslie Helm,  whose Japanese and American family has lived in Yokohama for four generations; Jim Benedict, the eldest of eight children who attended YIS; our first-ever student council president, Ronaele Swanson, daughter of long-time teacher and student favorite, Mrs. Eleanor Swanson; and Cliff Chow, from Taiwan, the class tech wiz and photographer extraordinaire, whose works grace many of the school’s early yearbooks. 

The nine students of the first graduating class of Yokohama International School at their graduation ceremony in June 1973.

Destiny made them all pioneers and brave guinea pigs who waded into uncharted waters of the college admissions, entailing experiments with SATs, Achievement tests, GCEs and TOEFL. The high scores and percentiles they produced were truly impressive, particularly when considering the few preparatory resources or precedents. Although the United States led the nationality tally at YIS, the curriculum continued to retain a very British-European leaning. YIS was England’s General Certificate of Education Centre for Japan with the British Council in Tokyo relying very much upon the school. All of our high school courses essentially followed that curriculum, and virtually all of the High School staff were hired from Britain.
With St. Joseph’s school closure in 2000, and YIS’ move to Honmoku in 2022, St. Maur, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2022, is the last of the international schools still standing on the hilltop. The beautiful new YIS campus is a testament to the best of the enduring traditions and continuity of the days on the old Bluff, combined with the benefits of cutting-edge facilities and the fast-evolving international educational environment.

Congratulations to the Class of ‘73, the first graduating class of Yokohama International School, diverse and inclusive long before such words entered our lexicon, each student, a true pioneer and representative of all the things we love best about our eclectic school community. 

Introductory page form the 1973 yearbook.