A top 10 for non-Japanese parents considering local schools


While non-Japanese parents may believe they are bestowing an educational gift on their children by enrolling them in the local school system, the hard work and rewards can also result in unintended challenges for both parent and child. Whether your children are already in the local system or you are weighing up your future schooling options, here are 10 issues for parents to keep in mind.

1. Language brings culture

Though many parents may feel excited about raising multilingual children, cultural and social learning is also an important facet of the local learning environment. The foundation of schooling is a nation’s investing in its future and its next generation of engaged citizens. This means local schools imbue children with national and local values and beliefs, which impact upon a child’s identity, relationships and sense of belonging.

For example, Japanese schools are not the racially, ethnically or socioeconomically diverse environments that many English-speaking schools in the West are. Children who are different can stand out and, in some instances, suffer from ijime, or bullying — a problem well documented by Japan’s Ministry of Education.

2. It’s all compromise and sacrifice

Something’s gotta give. By this, I mean that when learning multiple languages either simultaneously or sequentially, a child may have a larger total number of vocabulary words but may only have 80 percent of the vocabulary of his or her peer group in a single language. Similarly, to maintain grade level in multiple languages in reading, writing, speaking and listening, there will likely be less available time for other extracurricular activities.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and it has been suggested that a child needs 20-30 percent of his or her waking time exposed to a language to maintain fluency. And, it must be noted that Japanese and English are very different languages in terms of pronunciation, alphabets and grammar. Unlike learning Spanish as a native English speaker, there is little overlap and reinforcement between the two languages.

3. What are your expectations?

While your child’s peers go home and continue to strengthen their Japanese by speaking it with their family, your child may fall behind without similar support. It is advisable to have realistic and supportable expectations for language fluency and acculturation for each language and culture.

For example, do you hope they continue through university in Japanese, or do you hope they at some point switch to be educated in their mother tongue, and how will that be supported?

4. Know your own limits

Related to point 3, your child’s success may depend on your availability and financial investment. If multiple languages are to be maintained, a tutor or after-school juku may be necessary, as teaching your own child can be an emotionally charged venture.

Do you have the time and knowledge of Japanese to keep up-to-date with the regular notices home and back-and-forth notes between parent and teacher in the renrakuchō daily diary and planner? If not, it may be necessary to have a support system in place. A good bilingual parent friend with a child in your child’s class, or hiring a freelance bilingual college student, can be of invaluable help.

5. All children are different

It’s a cliche, but every child truly is different, and while some children seem to have barely a hiccup balancing multiple languages and cultures, others do not fare as well. And though on the surface they may seem the same, individual experiences can be unique.

One child may be in a very social classroom and have lots of friends and increased opportunities to interact while another may be shy or stick with the other foreign-language speakers. Further, the homeroom teacher may or may not have experience working with non-native speakers, which may impact upon the learning — and learning expectations — of your child.

For example, some Japanese teachers may hold foreign children to a lesser standard, reasoning that if the child is behind, it’s OK, or at least understandable. Some schools and districts also have foreign-language assistance programs, where the foreign student can meet with a special language teacher daily, or a teacher will accompany him/her to class several hours per week for support.

6. Brace yourself for the different

Be prepared for surprises both good and bad, because the system will likely be different from the one you are familiar with. Everything from the written and unwritten school rules to the subjects and how they are taught, not to mention the facilities, may contrast with your own experiences growing up.

Even the school calendar, daily schedules with start and end times, holidays, and birthday cut-offs may be new. Summer vacations are shorter than in the West, and trips to the homeland may be short. And, don’t forget that kids walk to school on their own starting at age 6 in Japan, which can be a scary prospect for some foreign parents.

7. You are entering a community

For both you and your children, your community will be the parents, students, teachers and administrators of the school. If the school is where you end up making friends, you too may embark on a parallel socialization experience to that of your children, but your children may do this at a different and oftentimes faster rate than you. Likely, if you have chosen to enroll your children into this system and live more locally, you are OK with this. But sometimes, you may need to work a little harder to find a friend who can relate to you on a more familiar level.

8. Home dynamics

Depending on the various members of your household, the workings of each player can tip the balance. For example, while you may speak English to your children (and they to each other), as their Japanese improves, it risks becoming their secret language if you do not understand it. And, as the children get older, the mother-tongue influence diminishes as the children spend less time at home and more at school and after-school activities.

Between parents, if one parent is taking on the brunt of more heavily loaded schooling responsibilities, he or she may grow resentful toward the other. And, lastly, if the school culture is different from that of the home, parents will need to create a balance that works for all members of the household.

9. Know what learning is going on

The Japanese school system is centralized and quite fixed compared to most Western schools, which means that there is a standardized curriculum that you may or may not agree with. The teacher instructs a classroom of around 35 students from the front of the room and there is little individual instruction or debate. School chores, like serving lunch and cleaning the classroom, are the norm, and students are expected to finish their school-prepared meals in elementary school.

Parent involvement at the PTA level is often an unspoken requirement of all mothers for each child for the duration of the academic year. Starting in grade four, many students begin attending juku to prepare for middle-school entrance examinations, which means a majority of their more challenging academic learning is happening outside of the classroom. This can change the classroom dynamic, especially if your child cannot keep up.

10. The need to supplement

If you would like your child to attend a university in an English-speaking country as a native speaker one day, how are you keeping up with their English? In the U.S. system, typically, reading and writing with more critical thinking become more intense starting in upper elementary school, so speaking it in the home is not enough. At the same time, to keep up with Japanese peers who speak Japanese at home, along with the tutor, are your child’s extra-curricular activities in Japanese? But keep in mind that written and spoken Japanese are very different in their word choices.

Ultimately, the most intimidating thing for parents is that you can’t go back. Though hotly debated and researched among numerous scholars, it is generally accepted that it gets increasingly difficult to reach native-level language fluency as we age. And though there is not a set cut-off date, there has been research indicating that the window for your child to speak with a native accent begins to close at 6 and has closed completely by the onset of puberty. That said, factors like time commitment and motivation may overcome such challenges.

As with language acquisition, a child’s cultural values are also established and reinforced in their formative years. Just like you may never be able to speak like a native if you learn the language past age 10, for example, you may also never be able to create a fully Western child with Western ideals if they have been in the local system until a similar age — unless the parents are aware of this dynamic and work to counterbalance it.

Like the truism that there is no manual for your child, there is also no set of instructions on how to best support your foreign child in the local school system, but I hope this list helps. What’s more, every family is different. With those known unknowns in mind, the best advice may be to make a day-by-day assessment and rejigger accordingly.

Teru Clavel is an education consultant, researcher and writer. She is the mother of three children who have attended local schools in the U.S., Hong Kong, China and Japan. Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Oliver Mackie

    “…you may also never be able to create a fully Western child with Western ideals if they have been in the local system until a similar age — unless the parents are aware of this dynamic and work to counterbalance it.”

    Why on earth would you put your child into the Japanese education system if your goal is “to create a fully Western child”? As the article correctly states elsewhere “language creates culture.” The idea behind raising truly bilingual children is to raise truly BICULTURAL children.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    “If they decide to send their children to a local Japanese school,
    non-Japanese parents need to be prepared for a very different learning environment to the one they remember from their childhood.” This would also be the case for Americans putting their children in the typical public school in the US. The legal requirements for states to receive funding under No Child Left Behind have produced an emphasis on testing that vastly exceeds the stereotypical view of Japan to say nothing of Japanese reality. Further, according to recent reports half of the children in American public schools come from families below the legally defined poverty line. The “culture shock” from putting their kids in American public schools might well be greater than that coming from putting them in Japanese public schools.

  • Gordon Graham

    I’ve been extremely pleased with the schooling and care my two children have received in the public school system. In particular how it fosters responsibility, discipline and independence.

  • Dan

    The single biggest issue for me is making the choice of not to enter the Japanese schooling system is severly limiting my kid’s choices of university and I’m making this decision when she is 3! By sticking them in an international school they will not be able to enter most of the universties in Japan and therefore will either have to study abroad or go to one of the English speaking universities such as the International Christian University or Temple, neither of which has a great reputation and only offers limited subjects.

    It terrifies me that by putting my daughter in an international school at the age of 3 we are basically telling her she will never become a doctor unless she goes to university abroad.

    Above, the article said entering a foriegn university may be hard for someone schooled in the Japanese school system but I think more importantly it is much harder for someone to enter a Japanese university if they have been schooled in a foreign system and seeing as your kid is unlikely to want to leave Japan where her family and friends are it’s surely better to just go with the local option.

    • kietero

      What are you talking about? Temple has a wonderful reputation. They’re just insanely expensive…

      And as far as your belief that your daughter will not get into a Japanese university because she would go to an international school, think again. focus is not just on academic performance but on Japanese ability. Unless the international school sucks, there will be a huge focus on Japanese learning… y’know, considering this is Japan ‘n all.

    • John Brown

      Both public and private have their pros and cons, no doubt. But I would like to point out two things regarding your post, Dan.

      First of all, the demographics in Japan are changing. The rapidly declining student population is leaving Japanese universities with little choice but to change with the times. That means by the time your children are of college age the whole “Japanese education” requirement will be a moot point. If Japanese unis do not begin to accept foreign and “nontraditional” students, they will wither and die. Most institutions know that, and there are a number that are already making changes.

      Secondly, just to point out, ICU is one of the top universities in Japan, albeit, a small one with limited degrees. But there are also Akita International (another top uni), Kansai Gakuin, Yamanashi Gakuin, Sophia, and probably others of which I am unaware that accept students who did not go through the Japanese educational system. Furthermore, a number of other top universities are talking about changing entrance requirements in order to bring in these students (as many of the international schools in Japan produce outstanding students), including Todai and Waseda.

      The point is, don’t get sucked into the lies the local boards of ed feed you. You won’t doom your child to a life without higher education in Japan if you send her/him to an international school.

      That being said, good luck in your decision making! I, too, have two young ones and am trying to decide which route to take. It’s not an easy decision because I don’t want to lose my child to the system (as I have heard is often the case), but I also want them to be able to function in Japanese society (not to mention, I’m not too thrilled about the idea of paying an arm and a leg in private school tuition fees).

    • Oliver Mackie

      I’ll post more about my experience later, but just for now, you are incorrect. Even under the current system (which will change anyway, as posts below have noted) your children will be eligible for a public or private university in Japan IF THEY GRADUATE FROM AN ACCREDITED JAPANESE HIGH SCHOOL. It is irrelevant what elementary or junior highs they attended. The question then is, can they enter a Japanese HS after intl JHS. The answer in most cases is ‘yes’, though it is a case-by-case decision by each school. The most important point of course is whether they can pass the entrance exam. If they can, then you might often find they even get bumped up the rankings if they have particular language skills, as is the case at the fairly prestigious Tokyo Metropolitan HS that I work at.

    • Roy Warner

      What is wrong with ICU’s reputation? It has an admissions hensachi that equals or betters some departments of Keio, Waseda, Jochi, etc., and in my experience its students are much more likely to be able to communicate in the foreign language they’ve spent 6 to 8 years studying. Furthermore, its pedagogy and curriculum, while limited, much more closely resemble those of liberal arts institutions in the Anglophone world (be that good or bad) than those of other Japanese schools. I have known several physicians not from Japan who were educated abroad or in Japan and earned medical licenses in Japan. If I were not from Japan and wished my children to receive an education not available in Japan, I would hasten with my children to a nation that offered the desired education, secure employment, and take up residence there.

    • Susie

      @Dan I would rather have a doctor educated abroad than one in Japan anyway! Trainee Japanese doctors have *no* clinical hands-on experience while at university and only actually get to work with a patient for the very first time after gradation. It’s just rote memorisation same as at school.

  • MegaSeoulKKKorea

    I wish them all the best….

  • Mark Makino

    “it has been suggested that a child needs 20-30 percent of his or her waking time exposed to a language to maintain fluency” I’d like to see a source for this.

  • Tim Johnston

    If you have the money, send you kids to international schools.
    A friend of mine who’s child attends a Japanese school is pleased with the quality of education,but on the other hand………as soon as his Son returns from school each day, He has to de-program him from all the over the Top societal rules that children are drilled with each day. He said he feels this leads the Child to be nervous and to lose his identity.
    In Japan identity is hard to come by. Freedom of thought and the acceptance to be different is frowned upon. The Education System needs to ease up a bit and not be so rigid.

  • Michael Bradley

    The underlying premise of this article seems to be flawed – neither I nor any of the other parents I know who send their kids to local Japanese schools do so out of choice. We do so because we have no realistic alternative. We are all westerners married to Japanese partners and want our children to grow up bilingually. Private International Schools are way beyond our means. Apart from that, I wouldn’t disagree with the main thrust of the article.

  • Toolonggone

    I would not recommend to send kids to local Japanese school throughout high school, unless either side of parents have Asian(preferably, Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean) cultural heritage; 2) if parents are planning to live in Japan in a long term; or 3) making a solid investment in research(e.g., Ph. D in Japan studies, Japanese language). The mess the MEXT and Abe administration are making with education reform today–especially English as foreign language, moral education, history, is menacing to students and teachers across the nation. You also need to get the background information about local school–including available resources for assistance, classroom communication, relationship with students/teachers, etc. Most challenging issue is communication with school representatives. Many parents will likely have trouble getting what is going on–especially when their kids get involved school-related incident. In that situation, they are mostly hesitant to speak about the whole story.