Different strokes: navigating the Japanese school system with a learning difficulty

Japan’s schools can be ill-prepared for dealing with bicultural children with learning problems.


Foreign parents with children at public elementary schools in Japan often praise them for offering a broad-based curriculum that includes plenty of time devoted to music, art and physical education. When it comes to the academic subjects, however, the Japanese education system is egalitarian, almost to a fault. Kids falling behind the curve may find their needs are not met, especially when there is no readily discernible reason for their struggles.

Beth’s son was a popular, outgoing boy with a wide range of outside interests, but from the outset he struggled with reading and writing the kanji characters, the study of which begins in first grade and continues until high school.

“His teachers just kept saying things like ‘He’s such a good kid — he just needs to try a bit harder.’ I wondered if I was to blame, because I was teaching my children to read and write in English at home rather than encouraging their Japanese,” Beth recalls.

The summer after her son started junior high school, Beth visited her home country of Australia and spoke with a friend whose son had been recently diagnosed with dyslexia. “It was a lightbulb moment,” she says. Although her Japanese husband was against the idea of testing for their son, insisting there was “nothing wrong,” Beth went with her instincts and subsequent tests revealed he was indeed dyslexic.

Dyslexia is often described as an issue with the way the brain processes written material. It is typically characterized by difficulties with word recognition and spelling, leading to problems with reading comprehension and, as a result, writing.

An issue such as dyslexia is commonly referred to as an LD in both English and Japanese, meaning either “learning disability” or “learning difficulty.” Advocates for the former term believe the use of the word “disability” helps ensure that individuals are appropriately identified and receive the support and services they are entitled to under disability laws. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, roughly 1 in 7 Americans has some type of LD.

In Japanese, LDs are also called gakushū shōgai.

“This basically means that there is no delay in intellectual development, but rather a problem related to hearing, speaking, reading, writing, calculation or reasoning, resulting in difficulty to learn in certain areas,” explains Akira Nakayama, a teacher at a public school for students with special needs in Tokyo. “In contrast, the term chiteki shōgai indicates an intellectual disability, for students who are usually unable to function in a mainstream classroom setting.”

However, because many Japanese people tend to associate the Japanese term for “disability” (shōgai) with an intellectual problem, some people prefer not to characterize LDs as “learning disabilities” to avoid misunderstanding or stigma.

EDGE is a Japanese NPO that supports families coping with dyslexia. Eiko Todo started the organization in 2001 after struggling to find resources and information to help her own son.

“At EDGE, we suggest thinking of an LD as a learning difference,” says Todo. “Dyslexic people simply learn in different ways from the majority, and the challenge is to find the best way for each person.”

Beth’s son decided to attend high school in Australia, where he was able to make use of computer technology to help with reading and writing his assignments. When it came time to sit final exams, he was given extra time in certain subjects and successfully entered a national university as a science major.

Beth praises the supportive environment in Australia for students with LDs. “There is a learning center on campus for students, and each one is made aware of the kind of support they are entitled to and manages it themselves. I don’t think this level of support would have been possible in Japan.”

Juliette is the mother of a young adult son coping with an LD, in this case auditory processing disorder. “It involves a problem with the neurological pathways between the ear and the brain, making it difficult for him to process information as quickly as most people,” she explains.

The family frequently moved about due to her husband’s job, living in several different countries. “There is a huge knowledge gap about LDs in the teaching profession, especially with the older teachers,” Juliette says, referring to schools her son attended in Japan and abroad.

Eventually moving back to Japan when their son was in junior high school, the family decided to keep him in the international school system. Like Beth’s son, he was able to take advantage of officially sectioned “academic accommodations,” and he now attends college overseas.

American Marsha Rosenberg has worked as a speech and language pathologist in Japan since 1983, helping international and bicultural families. She notes that reading, speech and language difficulties often run in families.

“There has been quite a lot of recent research indicating strong evidence for the presence of genes influencing developmental dyslexia as well as developmental speech and language disorders,” Rosenberg says. “I feel it is important to understand the family history of speech, language and learning difficulties when assessing a child.”

Several of the families who shared their experiences with The Japan Times fit into this category.

“Dyslexia runs in my family so I know three generations of dyslexics,” says Traci, the mother of a junior high school-age son. Although her family background meant she was very familiar with dyslexia, she says it was hard for her Japanese husband to understand their son’s learning issues at the beginning.

“The best analogy I’ve found for describing it is like being color blind. You can still see but there is a specific color you can’t distinguish. My son can still learn but he can’t distinguish the written word,” she explains.

Julia’s family is coping with the challenge of raising four children, three of whom have confirmed LDs, including dyslexia and Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder that does not affect the ability to learn but can cause problems with social interaction. In addition to the daily challenges of helping each child cope with their particular LD, Julia is pondering the best path for her eldest son, now in junior high school.

“He has had a lot of difficulty adapting to the rules and the sudden changes, especially the fact that compared to elementary school, teachers do not help or call Mommy to help,” she says. “I wish to find a balance in our lives, truly figuring out what type of education would best fit each of my children, whether it’s through home-schooling, distance schooling, going abroad or even a mix of all these.”

Sue’s son, an 11th-grader coping with dyslexia, is being home-schooled in English, which she believes has been very beneficial for his self-esteem.

“He has been able to go at his own pace without any sort of ridicule or judgment from anyone,” she explains. “I think having the diagnosis helped him to understand that he is not ‘dumb’ or ‘slow’ and to embrace his learning differences as just that — differences that we can work with.”

EDGE’s Todo believes the challenge ahead for Japanese schools is to identify children with LDs early on and to commit to using the techniques and technology available to help such children reach their full potential.

“Teachers are often reluctant to offer extra support and help in the classroom,” she says. “Parents need to be resolute in finding out what is available and getting the school on board.”

Traci agrees. “Ask for help if you need it,” she suggests. “I started with the school and the principal. When things didn’t go well in junior high school, I called the support teacher and told her we needed more help. If you find a teacher you like, keep asking them to help you find more resources.”

Timo Paul tutors dyslexic students in English and most of his clients are from bicultural families. Originally coming to Japan as an English teacher, he took courses in teaching dyslexic learners after meeting language students who showed similar difficulties to those he had experienced growing up with dyslexia in his native England.

“The Japanese schools and teachers are very much feeling around in the dark,” Paul says. “Instead of a rigid system that puts incredible pressure onto the students to pass tests, a more flexible and less test-centric learning environment needs to exist, allowing students with different learning skills to flourish.”

Tania echoes these sentiments. Unlike many, her first-grader’s LD was identified very early on in his educational journey. However, while grateful for the support her son has received through EDGE and a local service for children with LDs, Tania has already found the system lacking overall.

“My son’s teacher and even doctor had never heard of dyslexia,” she says. “If teachers had more knowledge regarding LDs, children who begin falling behind their classmates would have a better chance of receiving help at an earlier stage, instead of being looked over as being lazy or less intelligent.”

It isn’t just foreign parents who struggle. Sayoko and her husband, both Japanese, are the parents of an eighth-grader with autism. The family recently returned to Japan after spending five years in the U.S. During his time abroad, their son was able to transition from special education to a mainstream classroom, where he was a straight-A student in his last year and had teachers enthusiastically recommending college in the future.

Despite this stellar record, his autism and its attendant issues with communication mean that Sayako’s son would land squarely back in the “special education” track in the Japanese system. He is currently attending international school, where is he in a mainstream classroom but receives little tangible support for his autism.

“In the Japanese system we are told that even many highly educated, ‘high-functioning’ persons with disabilities can’t get jobs, so it is better for them to attend a vocational high school and gain employment under the ‘disabled persons’ scheme,” Sayoko says, referring to the quota system that exists at big companies. “This idea is instilled into parents of children with disabilities right from elementary school. The path ahead for our son is far from clear.”

Rose, the mother of a son in his first year of high school, urges parents to stay proactive and positive as they help their child grapple with the educational system. Rose’s son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in elementary school and, after receiving extra support, he has successfully navigated his way through the mainstream Japanese education system.

“The resilience and coping mechanisms will hold our son in good stead in the future,” Rose says. “For example, forcing himself to join a very active sports club at school to get that extra energy out, even though he really doesn’t love sport, or joining the student council body so he can let himself be heard because he loves to talk and can work with ferocious energy before a big event.”

First names, or pseudonyms in some cases, were used to protect the privacy of families who contributed to this article. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

Sources of support

• EDGE provides resources and testing for individuals with dyslexia and associated LDs like dyspraxia and dyscalculia. English inquiries OK. Web: www.npo-edge.jp/about/englishpage

• TELL, an NPO that has been providing English support and counseling to the international community for over 40 years, offers support and assessment for families. Web: www.telljp.com/more/resources/services-for-children-in-japan/

• The Tokyo Parent/Child Learning Group supports families coping with attention and learning difficulties. Contact Jill Joroff: jtjoroff@yahoo.com

• JPALD (National Parents’ Association of Learning Disabilities in Japan) offers nationwide support (Japanese). Web: www.jpald.net/zenkoku.html

  • Rowena Pike-McFadden

    Thank you for shining a light on this topic. Education is about providing whatever is needed for children to reach the education systems goals. If the government has those goals, then provide the services to help all children reach them not matter what their physical or intellectual difference may be.
    Great article. Congratulations.

  • Timo Paul

    Very interesting article, thank you for the quote, I thought I would just add that research in the UK a few years back also found out that the langauge difficulties dyslexic learners experienced were in part due to a slightly slower processing speed of auditory input by the brain which results in the there being some loss of data. Much is made of the written aspect but the auditory aspect of dyslexia is is a big hurdle when learning and research in the last few years has been throwing light onto how this is affecting learning. Again a great article with lots of useful information and insights.

  • Jenn J

    I’m an ALT in Senior High and there are a few students at my school who can’t read or write Katakana. They’re fine with Hiragana and Kanji but can’t understand Katakana at all. Does anyone know about this particular learning disability? I want to cater my English lessons to these students’ needs but unfortunately can’t get much information about this disability and how it may impact their learning in an ESL classroom.