REXBURG, Idaho – When Madison School District officials bought an old farm with the intention of building a school, they didn’t realize one already stood on the 160-acre property.
It’s no wonder. The old building hardly looked like a school, with a hole in the roof and a beehive tucked in one wall. Only a small brass bell and a few wooden desks reflected the structure’s intention.
But the discovery of the 1920s-era Japanese Language School has given some residents an idea: to resurrect the old school and use it as an educational museum or cultural library, in conjunction with the new high school slated to be built nearby.
In 1923, about 50 Japanese families lived in the area. They came to the United States to work on the railroad, and when that work was completed they stayed to harvest sugar beets or find other work in the community.
Their sons and daughters attended public schools in Rexburg, where they learned to read and write English. But on Saturdays and all summer long, they attended the Japanese Language School, where they learned to read and write in their native tongue.
“It was built by all our fathers from scratch,” said Kats Miyasaki, who attended the school for five years. “As more students went to the school, they (built) three additions onto it.”
Students competed in baseball and basketball against other Japanese Language Schools around the region, Miyasaki said. In April and May, they held a Spring Festival celebrating the cherry blossom, complete with kimono-clad girls performing traditional dances and a potluck.
“We had a great time over there,” Miyasaki said.
The school also served as a Buddhist meeting house and Japanese movie theater, but it closed in 1941 as the United States entered World War II.
“I was just getting to the point where I could read some of the harder letters,” Miyasaki said.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese families saw their books burned, their rifles and cameras taken. They had to use passports to travel from one county to another, Miyasaki said. Some families were sent to internment camps.
But now, some former students and community members say it’s time to revive the Japanese school, and combine it with public education.
A committee is working with the Madison School Board to decide how best to preserve the school.
“It’s very unique, a valuable piece of Idaho history,” said committee member Janet Ugaki, whose father attended the school. “We’d like to preserve the property and turn our eye toward the future and the past.”
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