All-Japanese families take a chance on international schools


“Third-culture kids” are defined as those who have spent a significant portion of their younger years outside of their parents’ culture. Most associate this term with families that have lived overseas, where children have been exposed to the first culture by their parents and the second by their foreign hosts, resulting in the kids growing up with a third culture that is a mixture of both.

But children don’t necessarily have to live outside their parents’ home country to foster this third culture. Increasing numbers of Japanese parents are going against the grain and placing their children in international schools here, principals at the schools say, even though the government classifies these institutions as gaikokujin gakkō (foreigner schools) designated as “educational institutions for non-Japanese students.”

In a notoriously homogeneous society where parents can face criticism for going against the grain, what drives these parents to shun local schools and instead seek out these institutions, most of which are not accredited as fulfilling the compulsory education requirement mandated by the education ministry?

Yuki Imoto, a cultural anthropologist at Keio University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Liberal Arts, says these parents usually fall into three categories. First, there are those who have been abroad and, due to their exposure outside of Japan, would like their children to have a similar experience in their schooling.

Ryoko Tanaka, a mother of a child at St. Mary’s International School, fits into this first group.

“My husband, after finishing university in Japan, went to the U.S. to attend college at Harvard,” she explains. “When he joined the workforce and compared his U.S. experience with his Japanese education, he felt that the overwhelmingly useful experience came from having been overseas.”

The second group, according to Imoto, are parents who work in certain high-profile professions — such as celebrities — who may want the kind of privacy an international school can offer.

Lastly, there are those who may not speak English or have prior international experience but believe that their children should have an international education. Frequently, Imoto says, “the parents themselves have struggled with English and have found themselves in experiences, at work or otherwise, where if they had had the English ability, it would have really opened up opportunities for them.” Such parents often work in multinational companies, run their own businesses or work at entrepreneurial ventures such as IT start-ups.

Keiko Fukasawa, another St. Mary’s mother, says that though her husband is a graduate of the University of Tokyo, widely considered to be the Harvard of Japan, he felt it lacked the international outlook this generation needs to be exposed to in order to thrive.

Similarly, Keiko Kawakami, whose daughter attends Nishimachi International School in Tokyo, says: “Unlike when I was growing up, I felt as if a different generation was coming. For my generation, your path was decided. Now, almost as if there are no borders, you have the freedom to live as you wish, but it has also become harder to find work. So this generation that needs to find the strength to stand on its own two feet.”

Though it is commonly assumed that the main reason Japanese parents enroll their children in international schools is so that they learn English, parents today are often equally concerned that their children should receive the individualistic, creative and active learning they believe is missing in the traditional Japanese classroom.

Kensuke Murashima, a graduate of Keio University and Duke University’s business school in the U.S., who also has a daughter at Nishimachi, says: “In the Japanese classroom, everyone does the same thing at the same time, and the learning concepts come from the teacher. There is less space or room for kids to come up with their own ideas.

“In the U.S., teachers ask kids to present a certain position, have opinions and ideas, and sometimes have discussions and arguments with proactive thinking through the multinational language, which is English.”

These parents also appreciate the global perspective that interaction amongst students in the international school environment can provide. At present, St. Mary’s student body comprises children from 47 countries, while Nishimachi has 30 countries represented, covering six continents. In wider Japanese society, where only 1.5 percent of the population are foreign nationals, Japanese children are exposed to far less diversity. In contrast, though a more transient community by design, students who attend international school maintain friendships all over the world.

However, putting children into international schools can also present cultural and linguistic challenges. For example, unlike in a regular Japanese home, parents can have difficulty adjusting to children with independent thoughts who may be vocal about their own opinions.

“I had to learn that in the education I selected for her, it is normal for her to have different opinions,” Kawakami says of her daughter.

Fukasawa takes great pains to try to make sense of this cultural gap for her child.

” ‘When we’re around Japanese mothers, I may not compliment you a lot. We are humble,’ ” Fukusawa says she explains to her son. ” ‘And around American mothers, I may say that you are not a good boy even when they say you are such a nice boy.’ So I tell him not to think I am speaking poorly of him. It’s the Japanese way.”

And though intergenerational gaps may always exist within families, these can feel magnified when a child’s cultural context is completely foreign to their parents’. Kawakami doesn’t understand the Silly Bandz rubber bracelet craze, her seventh-grade daughter’s appreciation for the boy band One Direction, or her desire as a fifth-grader to have her ears pierced, for example.

The type of parental involvement expected at international schools can also come as a shock to Japanese parents. They can be confused by PTA practices, private school fund-raising and charity efforts, and may be used to having daily interaction with teachers when picking up and dropping off their children. Even the little things, such as children not taking their own pencil case to school, are at odds with their own experience. And in some households, while the working father who has been educated abroad may understand these differences, it is often the mothers who attend to child care, leaving them to increasingly depend on the less-available father’s understanding of the culture. This calls for a further balancing act within the family.

Language can also be an issue, as English becomes the child’s stronger tongue while the parents usually communicate in Japanese. Tanaka says of speaking with her son, “There are times when we have difficulty engaging with one another and he’ll ask, ‘What is that Japanese word?’ He doesn’t know the Japanese vocabulary and I don’t have the English.”

And as children get older, with more activities outside of the home with their English-speaking peer group and less interaction with parents, the Japanese mother tongue is increasingly replaced by a stronger command of English.

Japanese mothers often have to make tremendous sacrifices for and a considerable commitment to the foreign language and culture. Kawakami says that when her daughter first started at Nishimachi, she was on the verge of tears every night when her inbox was flooded with emails in English. She would stay up well into the night trying to decipher their meaning. But optimistically, she says: “I became good at asking for help when I needed it, and now, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do to support my daughter, and as a mother. The best thing is that no matter how far away she is in the world or how difficult it may be for her to be accepted into a school, I know I can work my hardest to support her.”

While the children gain an international education, the mothers and fathers are keen to learn and keep up with their children’s studies as well, according to Imoto’s research.

“The lifestyle is not only for the children but also for the mothers, who can gain international experience by entering that network of internationally minded people,” Keio’s Imoto says.

Fukasawa concurs: “I do not have any international experience, so I feel like I enrolled in the school with my son. I’m committed to learning English, and I am improving little by little. And so now I’m able to learn about the school’s education practices and what kind of events are held at the school.”

To maintain their native language and culture, Japanese mothers feel a great responsibility to supplement their children’s international education with additional home or outside schooling. This can take the form of after-school Japanese-language juku or attendance at the local elementary public school in the summer, taking advantage of the fact that while international schools break up in early June, regular local schools typically continue on through the third week of July.

“I have a responsibility as a Japanese person to teach my son about our culture,” says Fukasawa, who sends her son to local public school during the summer months. “He needs to experience the Japanese public school, where everyone wears the same red-and-white hat, and you clean the school by yourself with a zōkin cloth because there is no cleaning lady, and where the students serve lunch.”

Attending an elite English-speaking university in the U.S. or Britain is the ultimate educational goal for many of these families. In preparation, many children attend U.S. summer schools during their summer holidays while in middle school, and some look to enroll in boarding schools for high school.

While the children attend a day program, moms will often enroll in an English-language program. This past summer, Tanaka and her son both stayed in a college dormitory in Seattle, with Tanaka taking an English course while her son attended the college-hosted camp.

To be able to better support their children, schools such as St. Mary’s have a Japanese-speaking support group on hand to help parents who may not understand English navigate the college application process and the SAT/ACT U.S. college entrance exams, for example.

TELL, an organization that provides support and counseling services to Japan’s international community, also works with Japanese families at international schools when cultural issues arise.

“If Japanese families have never been educated overseas, it’s hard for them to understand the Western education system,” says Angelica Isomura-Motoki, a TELL psychotherapist. “Sometimes parents have a totally different perspective on the education system, so we step in and try to put them on the same page.”

Japanese families that enroll their students in international schools are sometimes criticized as being elitist and privileged, as tuition can start at $20,000 per year. However, some parents says they are scraping by to afford this educational opportunity for their children.

“My husband works very hard, and we are living on the brink to pay the tuition,” Fukasawa says.

Another common criticism waged against such families is that these children will not be able to adjust to their native Japanese culture and will be left rootless. But Imoto’s research suggests that “the problematization comes more from the adult perspective, and the fact that you have to have this ‘pure Japanese culture,’ ” she says. “The children themselves enjoy the learning environment.”

Imoto feels that this hybrid identity will become more accepted as Japan makes greater efforts to globalize.

Optimistically, Murashima says, “We hope that the Japanese education system will catch up in the next five to 10 years, and that soon the international and Japanese system will become more similar. And that’s the point where we can rethink education.”

However, for now, he says, “We just can’t wait.”

At a Nishimachi International School fund-raising event in spring, Minori Kawakami’s family bid for the opportunity cowrite an article for The Japan Times with regular contributor Teru Clavel. Kawakami, whose mother was interviewed by Clavel for this article, is a seventh-grader at Nishimachi who loves art and One Direction and hopes to attend a U.S. university one day. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Earl Kinmonth

    “In a notoriously homogeneous society where parents can face criticism
    for going against the grain….” As a Japanese (citizen), I find this cultural stereotyping extremely offensive.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    “These parents also appreciate the global perspective that interaction
    amongst students in the international school environment can provide. At
    present, St. Mary’s student body comprises children from 47 countries,
    while Nishimachi has 30 countries represented, covering six continents.
    In wider Japanese society, where only 1.5 percent of the population are
    foreign nationals, Japanese children are exposed to far less diversity.” National diversity is one thing. What about social class diversity? What is the percentage of the children at these schools who do not have parents who have incomes that are not well above the Japanese average or who do not have parents who are on generous expat compensation packages? What percent of the children have working class parents? What percent come from single-parent families?

    • MeTed

      Maybe the parents don’t want social class diversity. Maybe they want toff friends with toff parents and toff connections. Their choice.

    • Warren Lauzon

      Social class diversity seems almost a foreign idea in Japan, and it is not confined to the international schools. There are quite a few “elite” all Japanese schools that lack any real social diversity.

    • Jeffrey

      Social class diversity is highly desirable, but rarely goes hand-in-hand a private education unless the school offers merit scholarships. I doubt many of these schools do this as they exist primarily for the children of ex-pats who don’t want to put their children in public school where next to none of them will speak the language and will likely be ostracized even if they do.

    • KenjiAd

      National diversity is one thing. What about social class diversity?


      It looks like elite parents are just putting their kids to the exclusive schools that ordinary Japanese kids don’t/can’t/won’t go. I don’t know how this sort of environment would help the kids to develop things like empathy and common sense, which is the basis for respecting different cultures.

      I’d rather want to be friends with someone who speaks only broken English but has a warm heart, than someone who speaks fluent English but has no understanding of how I feel.

  • James Santagata

    For Japanese children of Japanese parents, International Schools make a
    lot of sense, it will provide perhaps the highest marginal utility not
    just from the “Western” thought process, but because as a second
    language, unless there are clear needs, ambitions or desires, English
    will provide the highest marginal utility over one’s lifetime.

    Conversely, for those children that come from either a home with one
    (native or near native) English speaking parent or two such parents, I
    would such that the local/domestic schools provide more marginal
    utility, both linguistically, cognitively and culturally, provided the
    parents have the strategy and insights to point out “the wires”.

    Do that and your child/children are a step ahead.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    I worked for 4 years at an international pre-school and found the fear that Japanese kids will forget their mother tongue to be completely unfounded. The kids I taught used only English from 9 to 3:30, five days a week. As soon as mum arrived to pick them up they slipped straight back into Japanese without any problems or hesitation.

  • Dave Jones

    These families should be applauded for “living on the brink” and trying to improve their children’s prospects and competitiveness via an international education. I work at a large MNC with a significant presence in Japan: it is so evident from our hiring processes, and an oft-accepted disappointment among my Japanese colleagues, that hiring attractive/acceptable candidates is VERY difficult these days. We will sometimes interview for a single position for months, simply because we cannot find anyone to hire among products of an educational system which doesn’t require spoken English proficiency or the ability to engage dynamically with the world.

  • Warren Lauzon

    I think this is the real issue: “..parents can have difficulty adjusting to children with independent thoughts ..”. And not just the parents. A similar thing is occurring in Korea also, where the new generation is much less likely to buy into all the tradition just for the sake of “getting along”.

  • Frank Thornton

    “flexible” That’s exactly why it is good to go to an international school. To learn to be flexible and have an understanding and respect for other cultures. You must be joking if you think you can learn other cultures through the internet. Just because you read it doesn’t mean you understand it. Yes. English language is a tool for communication. But you are talking just about the words. There is much more to communication than just words. Just being able to speak English does not make you a kokusaijin.

  • JohnofMichigan

    As far as elementary and secondary school education, Japan lags behind the Chinese-speaking countries and regions (China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan) and Korea (South Korea, that is). So it is far from being a success model. Given the problem with Japanese schools constantly changing their history books, particularly the Japanese atrocities committed during the Second World War, having Japanese kids attend international schools may not be a bad idea, granted these international schools are not interested in helping the right-wing Abe administration in whitewashing that part of the country’s history.

  • Gordon Graham

    This from St.Mary’s International school in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo…”Our all-boys enrollment provides an environment free from gender comparisons”…Couple this sentiment with the teachings of the Catholic Church and well…so much for cultural diversity.

  • Gordon Graham

    The Catholic Schools in Canada are notorious for abuses in corporal punishment and child abuse. Also, promulgating the doctrines of bronze-age fantasy is hardly a starting point for cultural diversity and understanding (AIDS is bad…but condoms are worse is not a message I want my children to get from an authority figure). As a parent, I’m more than satisfied with how the Japanese public school my children attend has educated and nurtured them.

  • alua

    “But children don’t necessarily have to live outside their parents’ home country to foster this third culture.”

    I don’t think you have a real grasp of what being a “third culture kid” is. Going to an international school in the parents’ own country, regardless how diverse the school is, does not form a third culture. It might make children more open-minded to other cultures, it might make them interested in things they would otherwise never have been exposed to, and it might make them different from the average Japanese child that has little to no exposure to other cultures, but third culture this is not.

    “when a child’s cultural context is completely foreign to their parents’. Kawakami doesn’t understand the Silly Bandz rubber bracelet craze, her seventh-grade daughter’s appreciation for the boy band One Direction, or her desire as a fifth-grader to have her ears pierced, for example.”

    This doesn’t per se have to do with international schools / cultural contexts though. Generational gap and changes that come with the times, general globalisation trends and technology that allows us to access anything from anywhere have much more to do with this.

  • KenjiAd

    I think that “political correctness” James was referring to is a kind of self-delusion among some educators that American schools are already largely integrated (“diverse”). But just sitting in the same class room, doesn’t mean that the school is culturally racially diverse.

    The minority students (I believe James was one fo them) can see clearly where the invisible divion line exists, but some teachers have difficulty seeing it.

    There is a factor of Confirmation Bias, too. These teachers are invariably strong supporters of the education in a diverse cultural mix, so they perhaps unknowingly focus on the evidences to support what they believe in, not paying much attention to the evidences to the contrary to their belief.

    An unfortunate consequence of their Confirmation Bias is that these teachers might end up looking PC (hypocritical) in the eyes of some minority students. They are all good teachers, not hypocrites, but they might come across that way.

  • Jeffrey

    The best U.S. schools are easily as good as any in the world and, as you should know, school leaving in Japan is permitted at an earlier age (15) than it is in the U.S. (17), meaning that a large minority of kids who do not perform well in a Japanese-style schools, are never part of any testing cohort.

    No language is “. . . just a tool of communication.” In fact, that is in part of why the JET program, like it or not, was instituted. Truly mastering a language is always accompanied with a measure of culture acquisition.

    With regard to the various international schools in Tokyo (in particular) are not strictly “USA style schools.” There are French, Canadian and British schools as well. But by the very fact that these schools are in a foreign country means that they are different than they would be as institution in their home countries.

    Finally, while the Ministry of Education has proposed to increase the number of year of English instruction, it’s a pointless change until Japanese universities require that all aspirant English language teachers spend at least one year abroad in an English speaking country. They’ll otherwise never gain fluency or acquire any cultural insight for the language.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    Your demographic knowledge is at least a decade out of date. One of the articles you cite is more than 10 years out of date. Another is nearly a quater-century out of date. The majority of people with Korean nationality in Japan are “new comers.” They were born and raised in (South) Korea. The “old comers” have died off or have naturalized. Some Japanese public schools may be “lousy,” but overall they are rather good in my experience, certainly better on average than many in the US or the UK. You seem to think that immigrant children have exceptional problems in Japan. Have you read anything about immigrant children in the US or the UK? You seem to think that bullying is peculiar to Japan. Have you read anything about bullying in the US or the UK? As for life being tough for Japanese returning from abroad, it may be for some, but that is not the case for most according to Roger Goodman, a personal friend and the leading non-Japanese specialist on this subject. The many returnee Japanese I teach at two Japanese universities do not say they had it tough. The Japanese woman born in Venezuela and schooled in Britain who lectures for me on what it is like to be a returnee does not say she had it tough in Japan because she was a returnee. You seem to think you know a great deal about Japan. How many years have you lived in Japan? How well do you read Japanese? From which Japanese language sources do you get your information on Japan? How many children have you had in Japanese public schools? When? What countries other than Japan have you lived and worked in? What is you on going personal contact with foreign nationals in Japan, especially those from the largest foreign communities in Japan, Chinese and new comer Koreans?

  • Gordon Graham

    I was referring to St.Mary’s…A Catholic International school that was mentioned in the article. I don’t mind my kids getting exposer to all religious ideologies as they grow. I just don’t feel comfortable about a particular religious ideology being espouse and promoted by those who my children look up to and trust. The ethnocentrism of which you speak I know nothing about. Are you talking about social science class? History? I remember studying a lot of Canadian history when I was a kid. I guess it’s good to learn about the society you’re living in. Perhaps you’re talking about all lessons being given in Japanese. I agree that there should be more remedial Japanese programs in all schools for those families whose language in the home is not Japanese. I also think the government needs to increase its budget for education so such programs can be implemented and maintained.

  • Jeffrey

    Never having lived in S. Korea, I have no idea how the contemporary conversion to Christianity overlays Confucian and Buddhist tradition. But you can’t swing a dead cat in the suburbs north of Seattle without hitting a Korean church.

    The Korean immigrants here are very similar to, at least the stereotype, of the immigrant Chinese – driven and entrepreneurial. Along with all the churches have come some elementary schools, restaurants, Costco-sized grocery stores and all manner of business often with signs written only in Hangul.

    The Japanese have been real stay-at-homes since the modest diaspora to Latin America, Hawaii and the mainland U.S. ended nearly a century ago.

    When I live in NYC during the early ’90s, it was estimated that some 5,000 undocumented Japanese lived and worked there. Easy to believe since there wasn’t a decent Japanese restaurant in Manhattan that didn’t have a kitchen and wait staff that was entirely Japanese-Japanese.

  • Jeffrey

    That would be the numbers of legal immigrants. However, even on the low end of the estimates, illegal aliens from Latin American, Mexico in particular, far out number any other country or region.

  • Jeffrey

    Agreed. Charter schools are an abomination and do nothing as most of them, as well as the “professionally” run schools (guess trained teachers and administrator are “amateurs”), simply bleed funds away from the rest of a school district with few of them performing measurably better than existing public schools.

    How times have changed with Apple. About fifteen years ago they gave our school district a sweetheart deal on Mac laptops and desk tops. Brilliant marketing when you think about it, and it also helped make the student body more computer literate> As most families have MS PCs at home, kids are now comfortable with either operating system.

  • Jeffrey

    Earl, my children are enrolled in public secondary schools. Perhaps some states were testing only reading and math. But, beginning in elementary school in Washington State, the standardized tests include science and writing as well as reading and math. Common Core, love it or otherwise, encompasses the whole of the classroom curriculum.

    No Child Left Behind is pretty much meaningless at this point and many districts and even states are choosing to ignore it willing to forego federal money because it was such an ill-conceived program. Hard to imagine the Bush administration coming up with anything that wasn’t and shame on Obama for not pushing to chuck the whole thing.

  • Dave Jones

    One other point I’ve been thinking about: foreign companies in Japan or Japanese companies looking to go global often have to hire foreigners at Japanese universities or go overseas to recruit for positions. This makes no sense: in the US, for example, global MNCs can hire from a highly diverse and international-capable applicant pool. So it’s a great thing that the Japanese families in the article are making the most of their children’s education — and learning the tools that their generation will need to be self sufficient and to grow Japan’s economy on the global stage.

  • Jeffrey

    Earl, again, stop while you are behind. I’m on the PTSA board at my son’s MS and we just had curriculum night last week. Common Core is comprehensive. Obviously, they can’t have them doing experiments during a standardized test, but, yes, CC includes testing science.

    Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

    Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).

    Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.

    Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.