Founded in 1954, Catholic all-boys St Mary’s International School (SMIS) is based on the Mennaisian mission to instruct, educate and impart Christian values. It is the largest all-boys school in Japan – and one of the country’s most prestigious.
SMIS is set in the residential area of Setagaya-ku and is split between two campuses linked by a footbridge. One side of the road is for music, visual, digital arts and sports; the other side is classroom-based with the science labs, the chapel and libraries for all years. SMIS is divided into the kindergarten (known as RP which means Readiness Programme), elementary school (RP to Grade 5), middle school (Grades 6 to 8) and high school (Grades 9 to 12).
The school was rebuilt in 2010 and is low-rise, solar-powered and can withstand earthquakes. Top-of-the-range facilities include a media centre, a basement multipurpose hall and a huge indoor gym with basketball courts and a running track. There are also outdoor tennis courts, an Astroturf field which holds full-sized rugby and soccer pitches, plus a 25-metre indoor pool (the swimming programme is one of the school’s strengths and some swimmers have reached the Olympics).
Most pupils use the school bus which serves many areas of Tokyo including Shibuya, Chiyoda, Shinagawa and Setagaya (it’s shared with Seisen International School). SMIS is situated between two subway stations, Futako-Tamagawa and Kaminoge, both of which are around 10 to 12 minutes’ walk from the school. There is limited parking on campus, but space in the surrounding area.
Japanese head of school Saburo Kagei has been at SMIS since 2013. Jacob Hendrickson is the high school principal.
Parents tell us that competition for places is fierce with waiting lists for certain grades. Note: a child is not offered a place at the school on a first-come first-served basis, but instead based on their individual screening results so the focus is on academic selection. The school accepts applications throughout the year.
Applicants for all years must provide a recommendation from a current teacher or principal and have an interview. Those applying for Grades 9 to 12 also need an official transcript and school profile (both at the time of application and before enrolment) as well as a standardised test score. Non-native English speakers must also sit an English proficiency exam. Those applying from outside Japan can undertake an interview via Skype. However, for this to happen, an applicant must be English-speaking, from a school whose instruction is English, provide two years of records and have had no special educational services.
Current pupils are assessed throughout the year in order to continue at SMIS. If the expected standards aren’t reached, then boys can be kept back a year or not offered a place for the following year (this is based on academic progress, attitude, attendance and behaviour).
The school follows an American curriculum and there are two graduating pathways: the IB and St Mary’s High School Diploma. For the latter, students need 27 credits to graduate in a selection of IB and non-IB St Mary’s courses. Around 75 per cent choose the full IB Diploma Programme. In 2021, the SMIS IBDP average was 39 points against the world average of 33 points. The majority go on to US colleges.
On the IBDP, pupils can study Japanese and language and literature, as well as French language acquisition at both standard and higher level. Japanese and French are also offered at ab initio level (standard level). As you’d expect, religion is woven into everyday life here and there are Catholic, Christian and values classes (the latter is for those from other faiths).
SMIS does not provide support to those who have serious learning issues or emotional or physical disabilities. There is minimal SEN help in mainstream classes for those with mild difficulties. EAL (known as ESL – English as a Second Language) is offered to those whose second language is English in a limited capacity for Grades 9 and 10; there is no support for students entering Grade 11 onwards.
Art – especially what’s produced for the fine art IB exhibition – is off the charts. A range of mediums are on offer including painting, drawing, mixed-media, ceramics, collage and printmaking. Music is equally impressive with a buzzy band room on our visit and a mesmerising performance by the high school choir (many alumni have gone on to be professional performers and conductors). High school pupils can join the concert and jazz ensemble and the choir which is run with schools in the same family: Seisen International School and International School of the Sacred Heart.
We like the idea of involving all age groups in one performance – this is exactly what happens for the spring musical, which is produced with its sibling schools – think Oklahoma, The King and I and West Side Story.
SMIS is a member of the Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools (KPASS) and the school has a great reputation for sport (two SMIS alumni took part in the Tokyo Olympics). Swimming is taught from RP, athletics is outstanding and the wrestling team are league champions.
Pupils are expected to take part in after-school activities. Naturally, there are service clubs – from green club to Human Outreach Charity and Fukushima benefactors for those survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The annual ski trips at the SMIS ski lodge in Gunma Prefecture from grade 4 onwards sound special.
There are around 47 nationalities in the school with an equal split between international and national families. Although SMIS is a Catholic school, all faith denominations are welcome and pupils tell us the camaraderie is strong. There is a full-time nurse and six counsellors who help throughout the school.
The school has a Catholic campus minister who presides over school prayers and Mass, as well as celebrating Eucharist each weekday and Sunday in the chapel. The minister is also available for spiritual counselling. Values – responsibility, kindness, fairness, honesty and respect – underpin everything here.
Pupils eat in the canteen, which has three lunchtime sittings. They can bring their own lunch or buy it at school.
Parents say that ‘St Mary’s is demanding, although it is also a nurturing school’ while boys tell us that there is a good balance between academics and personal life. The St Mary’s Parent Association (SMPA) organises a few social get togethers – the bingo & raffle fundraising event is a big deal on the calendar. Transitioning between schools, however, is one area the school could improve on and parents feel that it can take a while to fit in.
A reputable, respectable school where boys are encouraged to balance working hard with being active.