January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

When Daiki Saito puts on his bright yellow cap and backpack and sets off for school in the morning, his neighbors in Ichinosetakahashi (Ichi-NO-seta-ka-HA-shi), Japan, can’t wait to wave hello. “I look forward to seeing him every day,” says Kaoru Tanabe, an elderly villager who watches the 7-year-old scamper past the town’s ancient thatched huts and temples. A logger pushing his cart through the remote hamlet near Mt. Fuji agrees: “Daiki has brought a bright, shining ray of sunlight to this village!”

There’s a good reason why Daiki has brightened so many lives here: Daiki is Ichinosetakahashi’s only schoolkid. And though the school in this 19-person village had been shuttered for 10 years, education officials in Japan—a country with high ambitions for its children, but one of the lowest birthrates in the world—thought nothing of spending $100,000 to renovate a portion of the building, then importing a principal and teacher at an annual cost of $175,000 to create a one-student school for the first-grader. “The education committee has a big heart,” says Daiki’s father, Yoshitaka Saito.

As does the endearing Daiki. “I love him so much I sometimes find it difficult to be his teacher,” says Emiko Yazaki, 51, whose husband, Tomishige, 52, serves as principal. Still, Daiki, who often wears gym clothes instead of the formal, traditional school uniform of gray shorts, white shirt and blue blazer, knuckles down to learn his reading, writing and arithmetic. “I have to study hard,” he says. “But they’re very nice to me.”

Equipped with a computer in his classroom, Daiki has his own home page on the Internet and can send e-mail to his pen pal in Kobe. But he still looks forward to the one day he spends each week with students at the school in the next district, 30 minutes down the road. “He’s happy to see his friends, and he does cry when he leaves them,” says Yoshitaka, a 37-year-old furniture maker who moved wife Kazumi, 37, and their only child from Tokyo five years ago. “But I want him to grab his future in his own way.” And that’s fine with Daiki, who doesn’t seem to mind rushing into an empty playground at recess. “I love nature!” he says. “I’m happy!”

Peter Ames Carlin

Peter McKillop in Ichinosetakahashi

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