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Navigating the Tokyo high school minefield: a foreign parent’s tale

Some Tokyo government institutions have special entry procedures for foreigners, returnees — but with major caveats

by Michael Hassett

Not too long ago, I heard from a foreign resident of Tokyo looking for a high school for her daughter, a 14-year-old who will begin her final year of junior high in April. Both parent and child were extremely excited about recently discovering a nearby public school featuring a cosmopolitan atmosphere and encouraging the development of well-balanced students with international perspectives.

The school, Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School (Toritsu Kokusai), is located a few stops from Shibuya on the Keio Inokashira Line and has consistently ranked in the top 10 percent of Tokyo’s public (state) high schools. Instruction for most courses is in Japanese, and foreign languages taught at multiple levels include English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. About 15 percent of the school’s students hold a foreign nationality (representing around 20 countries) and 20-25 percent of its 720 students are returnees who have lived overseas for at least two consecutive years (in around 50 countries). The school is about 80 percent female, and graduates and their parents often speak highly of the place.

This foreign resident’s daughter was born and raised in Tokyo, has been educated at public schools in the city, and has spent significant time with her family in Europe. Japanese is her second language, English her third. The mother had heard that returnees and foreigners were given preference when applying to this school. Moreover, because it is public, costs are low.

As a foreign parent of a child nearing the end of the high school research and application process, I was saddened, however, to have to inform this woman that even though this school does have special entrance requirements for returnees and children of foreign Tokyo residents, her child would not fall into either category.

So why would this girl not be considered a child of a foreign resident of Tokyo? The child is a dual national. Her single-parent mother is not Japanese. And both mother and child reside in Tokyo. That would seem to tick all the boxes.

Only a few public high schools in Tokyo have a special admissions process for children of foreign residents, and Toritsu Kokusai is the most popular of these. Others include Asuka Senior High School in Kita Ward and Tagara Senior High School in Nerima Ward. The screening process at Toritsu Kokusai includes a 50-minute essay followed by a 10-15 minute interview (both in English or Japanese). It should be noted, however, that entry through this process is anything but guaranteed. At Toritsu Kokusai, for example, only 131 of 422 April applicants (31 percent) have been accepted over the past five years. Unsuccessful applicants may still take the regular entrance exam with the mostly Japanese applicants a few weeks later, though, in a second attempt to enter.

These high schools have three paths by which a student of a certain age may be considered “a child of a foreign resident” and therefore eligible for special consideration in the application process. All three require that the student be a foreign national and have a residence in Tokyo at the time of application. The three extra qualifying criteria are as follows: 1) the student has graduated or will graduate from a nine-year course of education (i.e., ninth grade) outside Japan; 2) the student will graduate from a nine-year course of education at an international school in Japan; or 3) the student will graduate from a three-year junior high school in Japan and he/she entered Japan less than three years from the start of high school after being outside Japan for at least two consecutive years.

This woman’s daughter would not fall into any of these categories. She will be graduating from a public junior high in Japan and she has lived in Japan for the past three years.

Now, if she had gone overseas to study for at least two consecutive years — possibly living with relatives or family friends, or at a student dormitory — and then graduated overseas or returned to her public junior high in Tokyo, she would have been eligible.

But in such a case, wouldn’t a child returning to Japan after studying overseas be considered a returnee — the other category of student afforded special treatment in the application process? Not necessarily. Public schools and some private schools, like International Christian University High School (2013 enrollment fee ¥330,000, annual fees ¥794,000), consider a student to be a returnee only if the child was accompanied overseas by at least one parent for at least two consecutive years.

Entrance requirements for a returnee are generally easier than those for other applicants because a curriculum difference at an overseas school may put a student at a disadvantage when returning to Japan, particularly when Japanese ability is tested. For example, of the 62 returnees who tested for entrance to Toritsu Kokusai in April 2012, 47 were accepted — a rate of over 70 percent. Of the 303 students who took the regular entrance exam that year, 120 were accepted — less than 40 percent. (In Japan, acceptance rates at public high schools equal enrollment rates, i.e., declining an acceptance to a public school would be extremely rare.)

According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, children going overseas on their own are considered to be making a choice to leave Japan and thus deserve no special consideration if they choose to return, whereas children accompanying a parent have no choice but to leave the country.

Many private schools, however, consider any child who has returned to Japan over the past one to three years (varies depending on the school) after having studied overseas for at least two consecutive years to be a returnee. Some of these schools include Seikei Senior High School in Musashino (2013 enrollment fee ¥300,000, annual fees ¥835,000), Kanto International Senior High School in Shibuya Ward (2013 enrollment fees ¥425,000, annual fees (gaikokugo course) ¥456,000) and Hiroo Gakuen (2013 enrollment fee ¥388,000, annual fees ¥892,000 (international course) and ¥748,000 (science course)). In fact, Hiroo Gakuen has an international course of study that offers all classes in English except social studies and Japanese. The school also has a well-regarded science course of study (in Japanese) that allows those with advanced English skills to take part in the English classes offered to students in the school’s international department.

Certain public schools also offer specialized curricula, and the entrance exams to those schools thus test only certain subjects or give greater weight to scores on particular subjects. For example, entrance exams to most public schools test English, Japanese, math, science and social studies, but the exam to enter Toritsu Kokusai covers only English, math and Japanese, and the English score is given 1.2 times the weight of the other subjects.

Other Tokyo-area public high schools offering specialized courses in foreign studies or giving greater weight to the English part of their exams are listed in the table.

Two public schools specializing in science and technology, but not offering any advanced English courses, are the very new Tokyo Metropolitan Tama High School of Science and Technology, which will be graduating its first class in March, and its older sister, the similarly named Tokyo Metropolitan High School of Science and Technology, located on the opposite side of Tokyo in Koto Ward. The sterling facilities at the Tama school would excite many future Steve Jobses and Shinya Yamanakas, and the teachers at both facilities appeared to be filled with great passion for their work.

In the years prior to entry, interested parents and students can attend information sessions, receive tours of school facilities and attend school festivals. Some schools even welcome potential students on certain days to participate in sample classes. In fact, while attending Toritsu Kokusai’s culture festival, which we were told receives the most visitors of any high school culture festival in Japan, we entered a Q&A room set up by students, who would sit down with you and spend as much time as you wished openly answering your questions. Early into our session, I turned to my daughter and switched to English. Before my daughter could even respond, the young South Korean student assisting us interjected most fluently, “Oh, I speak English too if you feel more comfortable in English.”

Information sessions vary greatly, particularly between schools that are public and those that are not. This past year, Toritsu Kokusai packed thousands of parents and students into a giant aircon-free gymnasium on two of the hottest, stickiest days of summer — a most unpleasant experience that challenged consciousness.

Sessions at private schools, on the other hand, were always more comfortable — and at least on one occasion, absolutely spellbinding, for all the wrong reasons. Shortly after the start of the two-hour information session at this posh school filled with thousands of well-heeled parents and children, a giant ball of dust became dislodged from the rafters of the gymnasium and slowly dropped down, down, down — eventually settling in the crown of a woman seated in front of us and captivating those behind, tingled by every subsequent tilt of her head. Needless to say, it’s rather challenging to give one of these information sessions your full attention when you have a giant web of the school’s dead remains dangling from the head ahead.

In the end, the dust settled, the grit and grime were bathed away, and we — like so many others who have been through this process — were left with a handful of schools that best fit in terms of interest, location and budget. The school of dust, however, didn’t make the cut.

Weight given to subjects on entrance exams at Tokyo Metropolitan high schools
High school Ward/city* English Japanese Math Science Social studies
Asuka Kita 1.2 1 1 1 1
Chihaya Toshima 1.5 1.5 1 1 1
Fukagawa
(gaikoku
course)
Koto 2 1.6 1.4 1 1
Kodaira Kodaira* 2 1 1 1 1
Kokubunji Kokubunji* 1.5 1.5 1.5 1 1
Kokusai Meguro 1.2 1 1 0 0
Matsugatani
(gaikokugo
course)
Hachioji* 2 2 1 1 1
Ota Sakuradai Ota 1.5 1.5 1 1 1.5
Shinjuku Shinjuku 1.5 1.5 1.5 1 1
Tagara
(gaikoku
bunka

course)
Nerima 2 1 1 0 0
High School
of Science and
Technology
Koto 1.5 1 1.5 1.5 1

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  • Earl Kinmonth

    Minefield?