Parents of mixed kids look abroad for high schools

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

College preparation for bicultural young adults may include seeking out international as well as domestic opportunities. Some youngsters, however, are heading abroad much sooner — for high school or junior high school.

The Japan Times spoke with 13 families whose children were all educated in the Japanese system before heading overseas.

The reasons for sending a child abroad vary. Jack’s son is a gregarious, sporty boy who enjoyed the social aspect of Japanese school but struggled with reading and writing (many of the parents I spoke to requested that only their first names be used). Diagnostic testing revealed that his son has dyslexic tendencies.

“Dyslexia isn’t well understood yet in Japan,” Jack says. “We sent him to my parents in Australia to attend a private high school. It was tough at first, but with understanding teachers and the widespread use of computer technology, he has found his feet. He’s now planning to study science at university.”

Debbie, an American mother of five, thought long and hard about her children’s futures. The Japanese high school and university juken (entrance exam) system didn’t appeal to her, and she wanted her kids to get to know their non-Japanese heritage more deeply. The oldest three are currently attending high school and college while living in the U.S. with their grandparents.

“There was a division in Japanese schools because they are ‘half,’ and a certain degree of teasing — sometimes playful, sometimes harsh,” she says. “But that disappeared in the melting pot of ethnicities at high school in the U.S.”

The rigid juken system, which allows a student to apply for only one public high school, was the catalyst for Liz Kudo’s middle son going to live with an aunt in West Virginia. When he didn’t pass the exam for a leading public high school, the family was faced with the prospect of sending him to a lower-tier private school until Kudo raised the idea of going abroad.

“It was a great fit for him,” she says. “He definitely benefitted from a less restrictive education in the United States.”

Kudo’s son continued on to university and is now studying to enter medical school in the U.S.

The majority of the families I spoke with sent their children to stay with the non-Japanese spouse’s parents. While this gives teenagers a chance to form close bonds with relatives, it may also be stressful for both sides.

“It’s hard enough for parents to deal with teens sometimes, let alone grandparents,” Jack says. “My parents are pretty cool for people in their 70s, but I’d have to often remind my son to keep things respectful.”

When family members are unwilling or unavailable, boarding school is an option. Kazu and his wife, who are both Japanese, sent their son to a school in New Zealand after the boy was the victim of bullying at his junior high school.

“Our son has always been unafraid to speak his mind, so not a ‘typical’ Japanese,” Kazu says. “We didn’t want him changing his personality in order to fit in, so we looked for other options.”

International student fees, coupled with dormitory costs, made their son’s education an expensive one but his parents have no regrets. “He’s now a confident, bilingual young man studying in Australia. We couldn’t ask for more.”

Parents used to the rigmarole associated with entry to Japanese school are often pleasantly surprised at how simple things are overseas. Public schools require transcripts from the Japanese school, while private schools might require an essay and interview. In some cases, those going to the United States need additional vaccinations.

A consideration for studying in the U.S. is that some states require legal guardianship to be transferred to the child’s relatives. Erin Sakakibara is the mother of four daughters who have all attended American high school, including triplets. She was initially advised to transfer guardianship to her parents.

“However, we then found this made them ineligible for sports,” Sakakibara says. “This rule was to prevent schools from recruiting talented athletes from other districts and putting them under the guardianship of someone other than the parents.”

Sakakibara had the guardianship reversed back and then gave temporary power of attorney to the grandparents for decisions made on the girls’ behalf.

The parents I spoke with are unanimous in their opinion that going overseas has exposed their children to a diverse and rich range of experiences.

“She’s grown in ways that would never have happened in Japan, and has a much broader view of the world,” says Patricia of her daughter, who went to the U.S. for high school. “In college she minored in gender and sexualities. She told me that in Japan they don’t even have some of the vocabulary to discuss what she studied.”

Two of Tina’s children have also attended American high school. “The kids have more opportunities to be themselves, not bound by the confines of the many, many rules Japanese schools have for students,” she says.

Sakakibara echoes this sentiment: “My girls were encouraged to be involved in a wide range of activities, from trying several different sports each year to fine arts, student council and academic teams.”

She also notes that the boys and girls were “on a even playing field academically.” Most Japanese high schools expect students to choose either sciences or humanities. “Often the girls here get shuffled into humanities without much choice. My daughters were able to take AP (advanced placement) classes in both areas in the U.S.”

Naturally, there are also disadvantages, the most obvious being that parents miss their children dearly. These days, however, email, Skype and social media can help bridge the gap. Many of the interviewees reported that the schools offer online access where parents can check up on their child’s grades and email teachers with any concerns.

Christine, an American mother of two, points out that many parents in Japan barely see their busy teenagers anyway.

“When my kids were in junior high, club activities kept them at school until dark every day of the week,” she says. “I think the adjustment to my son going abroad for high school was actually easier than when my oldest started Japanese junior high school.”

School life abroad may bring up issues teenagers in Japan don’t typically have to face. After sending her older daughter to her hometown for the last two years of high school, Australian Annalise says she has sometimes worried about her safety.

“It is quite a safe county, but not being able to pick her up from parties where teenagers were drinking made me anxious.”

What of the costs involved? Several parents commented that even private school overseas is significantly cheaper than most international schools in Japan. Others mentioned the cost of ‘hidden extras’, such as air tickets to come home for vacations, or driving lessons in cultures where it is the norm for high school students to get behind the wheel.

Patterns of study abroad for older children are often repeated among younger siblings. Nine of the families I spoke to had younger children still in Japanese school when an older one went abroad. Of those, seven families have subsequently seen a younger sibling follow the same path. This might seem only natural, but parents said it was important to listen to younger children’s input with their educational choices.

Parents should also consider options and financial obligations for the college years. While studying overseas can open doors to international institutions, it shuts out access to higher education in Japan in many cases. And American parents in particular expressed sticker shock when it came to college costs in their country.

“University education in the U.S. is expensive! I cannot express that enough,” cautions Sakakibara, whose four daughters are all currently attending college. “Even with public universities, the system is such that if you attend a university outside of your state of residence, the tuition is two to three times higher.”

Wishing to reconnect with her Japanese side, one daughter applied for and entered one of Nagoya University’s specialized undergraduate programs in English. Sakakibara considers public education costs in Japan “amazing value” compared to the U.S.

Tips for keeping overseas college costs down include considering community colleges and hiring an educational consultant to help navigate the plethora of information on financial aid and scholarships. Debbie praised how U.S. high schools allow students to take courses for college credit. In this way, her oldest daughter has graduated with a college semester’s worth of credits already.

If things don’t work out overseas, it can be tough to re-enter the Japanese system for high school. Sheryl’s son attended school in Britain as a boarder for several years, but ultimately came back to Japan to complete high school.

“No public high school in Japan would look at him,” she says. “Fortunately, he was finally accepted into a private school, but only because I happen to teach in one of their other divisions.”

Sheryl’s experience suggests it would be prudent to consider various scenarios when planning a child’s path. Several families secured a place for their children at Japanese high schools, paying entrance fees and even the first semester’s tuition, then officially withdrawing the child once they were satisfied that school overseas would work out.

Michael Hassett’s daughter wanted to attend a Japanese high school, choosing instead to live with her grandparents in the United States for junior high. She came back to Japanese ninth grade with strong English skills, putting high schools with specialized English programs within her grasp.

While some public schools have special enrollment options for returnee students, Hassett advises caution. “They consider a returnee to be only a child accompanying a working parent overseas for a certain number of years.”

Fortunately, there were private schools ready to accept his daughter as a returnee, and after six months of juku (cram school), she gained entrance to a high school with a well-regarded international course.

Barbara, a mother of two, found a way for her daughters to study “overseas” without leaving Japan. Their older girl’s experience with a bully of a homeroom teacher in junior high led her parents, both Americans, to pursue other options. The nearest international school was out of reach financially, and sending her to live with relatives abroad was not a viable option.

Barbara researched online education options and came upon Laurel Springs School, an accredited school based in California.

“She was quite tech-oriented, so the idea of using a computer for her lessons appealed to her,” Barbara says. In time, her younger sister followed suit, and the family was ultimately satisfied with their choice.

Sometimes one simple decision can impact on the whole family, as in the case of Jane Ward. Her son has been living with his American grandparents and attending high school for the past year, but as Ward’s parents can no longer commit to hosting him, the family has decided to move to the U.S. Ward and her daughter will relocate this spring, while her husband remains behind until he can secure employment Stateside.

Ward will be swapping a satisfying career teaching at a university in Japan for life in her sleepy Wisconsin hometown.

“Parents need to understand that an educational choice may lead to risky upheaval like relocation,” she says. “However, don’t be afraid to send your child to a better place for education. It’s a blessing to have choices, so take the opportunity to try something.”

There is a lot for Joei Lau to bear in mind as she prepares to send her 15-year-old son off to boarding school in the U.K. from April. At this stage, all the Hong Kong native knows for sure is that parting with her only child is going to be tough. However, it was a path her son chose himself.

“Considering my son’s clear vision for his studies, we strongly feel this new adventure will definitely be a plus for him,” she says.

Send comments and ideas on this topic to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Erin

    Gordon, I certainly don’t disagree with you! We love the discipline That Japanese school gave our girls through their 9 years – public school for elementary and private for Jr. High. I’m always amazed at how large classrooms of kids (up to 40 – unheard of in the states!) could be affectively managed by teachers who commanded and got a lot of respect (and love!) from their students. I love how kids here take an active role in serving lunch, cleaning their classrooms, maintaining their sports equipment, etc. Let me tell you, it wasn’t lost on the U.S. teachers, either. We were always getting complimented on how polite and respectful our kids were…from teachers, counselors, coaches and administrators. We chalked it up mostly to the discipline they received. Their dedication to sports and the other activities they joined was certainly a direct result of their bukatsu activities they were involved with in Japan. Yes, they did encounter drinking and drugs in the states, but again, I chalk it up to their discipline (and devotion for their extracurricular activities) that kept them on the straight path. For us, there were so many advantages and disadvantages to maneuver in both systems but in the end, I saw a culture of dismissing the talents of girls in the classroom – preparing young girls not for careers but rather for jobs. I also saw many parents around me having high expectations for their sons and very few, if any, for their daughters. Thus our decision. I’ll tell you one thing, though…I’m forever grateful that my children were given the opportunity to be children. I feel kids in the U.S. grow up way too fast. Those years at the local shogakko are still the ‘best years’ in the minds of all four girls. My husband and I agree.

  • Candy Rowe

    A very useful piece of article for parents of non-Japanese kids too. As new parent, both my husband and I worry about these issue for A-chan, even she’s only a year old. Food for thought. Thanks

  • Marjorie Itabashi

    Born and raised in Japanese public schools and finishing gimu-kyouiku really did help me have good fundamentals. U.S. schools are made to fit the educational level of each individual, I was able to expand and be ahead of my peers. Doing math that I already did in junior high in Japan again was frustrating, but once I figured out the system I was able to graduate high school with about a semester worth of college finished. (I had some peers who graduated high school with an associates degree also) I feel students in Japan feel pressured to make big commitments about their future too early. (they have to chose high schools that would fit into their career path, or what they might want to do in college) High schools in the U.S. had various programs so that I could experience the field before I decided to commit, and gave me the opportunity to make an well informed decision. However, I did enjoy Japanese school culture and miss it dearly, but I also enjoyed the freedom I had in the U.S. as an individual going into adulthood.

  • happyjapan

    In my view, putting your kids through the meat machine that is the Japanese education system is doing them a serious injustice. It’s a terrible system. The much lauded “discipline” turns them into unthinking, uncreative, servile workaholic drones. It really only prepares them for a life of servitude within Japan’s system. It’s especially hard on females, but Japan as a country is brutally sexist anyway, so it’s probably just being honest about the kind of future girls can expectin Japan. However, farming your teenage children out to an overseas education is probably worse, in my opinion. This is the time of life that your kids most need guidance and parental support. If you wish to send your kids to be educated abroad, at least one of the parents should go with them. Basically, you should leave the country if you have kids older than early primary school, IMO

  • Steve Lewis

    Interesting read.

    Quite a few of the domestic international schools in Japan have boarding facilities too (in the interests of disclosure, I work in one in Osaka). In addition to the option considered by the parents quoted in the article, keeping your child in Japan, but having an English language based education might be an option worth considering in addition to the overseas one. It definitely opens up a very wide set of tertiary education options both inside and outside of Japan.