When I started researching the school’s history for my PhD project, I discovered the fascinating story about the origins of Japanese teaching at the school.
The first Saturday Japanese class was held early in 1935 at MacRobertson Girls High School. Mr J.A. Seitz, the Chief Inspector of Secondary Schools, supported the establishment of Japanese as a “special experiment”. The idea was to trial the Japanese classes as a pilot, to ascertain the level of interest among Victorian students. If the classes were overwhelmed with enrolments, Education Department officials would consider rolling the Japanese curriculum out to a small number of mainstream schools.
At that time, the VSL was not actually a school. It did not have a name. But this curriculum innovation was a historic development, because Japanese was not being taught in any government school at the time. But education department officials knew it was necessary for Victorian children to develop an understanding of Japan, which was fast becoming a powerful trading partner. They hoped that Japanese could eventually be introduced into the curriculum of one or two metropolitan high schools.
The exact date of the first Japanese class is unknown, but they started early in 1935 and more than 50 students enrolled. The teachers were Miss Irene Catherine Ryan, a French teacher from Williamstown High School, and Miss Amelia Pittman from Sandringham Primary School. They had studied Japanese for several years at the University of Melbourne, where it was taught by Mr Moshi Inagaki. Inagaki’s Japanese program only existed on the fringes of the university and it was not widely accepted. It was only offered as an extra subject and did not belong to any faculty. Despite this, and being paid very little, Inagaki worked enthusiastically to promote Japanese. It is thought that Inagaki supported the establishment of the Saturday classes.
In 1939, in recognition of their valuable work in developing Japanese studies in Victoria, Miss Ryan and Miss Pittman were invited on a tour of Japan, sponsored by the Japanese education authorities. Today, a study tour to Japan would seem quite ordinary. But in the interwar years in Australia, this was such an unusual and novel event that it was reported in the newspapers around Australia. At that time, Australians new little about Japan but it seemed exotic and they were interested in it. Miss Ryan and Miss Pittman were interviewed on the radio about their impressions of Japan. They remarked that the Japanese people were charming, they were impressed by the Japanese schools, and that “the children had as much freedom as Australians and were just as happy.”
When the war broke out, Japanese language study went out of favour in Victoria. The idea to expand the Japanese curriculum into mainstream schools was shelved. Japanese was not introduced into mainstream secondary schools until many decades later. Mr Inagaki, who had worked so enthusiastically to establish Japanese language studies in Melbourne, was sent to an internment camp in Tatura in country Victoria, along with all other Japanese nationals, who were treated as “enemy aliens”. Throughout the war, the number of students who enrolled in the Saturday classes dwindled to such an extent that education department officials started to question the viability of the classes. But Seitz resisted this pressure and was adamant that they continue. Thanks to the vision of Seitz, who understood the value of language education, the Saturday language classes continued uninterrupted until the present day.
In conducting this research, I was very fortunate to make contact with one of the early students of Japanese. This was the late Mrs Nesta Potts (nee Doherty), a lovely lady who studied Japanese for three years on Saturdays at MacRobertson Girls High School, starting in 1939. When I met Nesta in 2013, she was in her late eighties, and was thrilled to be interviewed and to share her memories. Nesta was excited to show me her treasured Japanese textbook, Colloquial Japanese, by W.M. McGovern, which she had kept for more than seventy years. Her interest in Japanese study was initially sparked by her mother who loved Japanese art. Nesta recalled the “lovely atmosphere” of the Japanese classes. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a sixteen year old in 1939, and I guess that Japanese language study on a Saturday must have been quite an adventurous and exciting activity for a young woman to pursue.
After leaving school, Nesta joined Army Education, where she taught unit education officers, and she was able to continue her Japanese study. Nesta also had several opportunities to use her Japanese language skills in her working life. During the war, she was responsible for communicating with a Japanese prisoner of war. Later, Nesta became a teacher in the Education Department with a focus on Special Education, and eventually became a Principal. As Principal, there were occasions when she welcomed delegations of visiting Japanese teachers to her school. She recalled delighting them with her ability to speak Japanese. For a student and teacher of Japanese myself, meeting Nesta was a moving experience and it was an absolute highlight of my time as a research student.