A typical day at school for 12-year-old Sophie Kimura could be a social studies lesson which involves finding out what life is like in Illinois where her “e-pal” Dawn lives.

Or it could be spent expanding her vocabulary skills by reading the latest adventure of Harry Potter. It could also be used to write a review of a Marc Chagall exhibit for Kidstown.global, a Web site produced by children.

What Sophie ends up doing that day largely depends on herself. “I’m my own teacher,” she explains.

For the last two years, Sophie has been a homeschooler after attending a public Japanese school until the third grade. Her mother, Katherine Combs, felt that kids in the later elementary years do not have enough time to spend with their families, due to mandatory participation in clubs. After teaching English in Japan for over 14 years, Combs also observed that the Japanese school system did not teach students, especially girls, self-expression.

Honing Sophie’s communication skills — from being able to speak with adults to writing down her opinions — was a major educational motivation. While these skills take time for students in any educational system to develop, the more easily achievable goal of raising Sophie’s English reading and writing abilities to native fluency was reached surprisingly quickly. Sophie has the answer why: “You get to study what you want.”

It is impossible to gauge the number of students being homeschooled in Japan because of the various forms that type of schooling takes. Some families simply supplement their children’s school education with the teaching of subjects such as language or religion, while others instruct their children entirely at home.

Depending on the educational goals set by each family, the style of homeschooling also differs radically. Some use a standardized curriculum that corresponds to a particular school system. Materials based on development, not age, are there to help parents individualize their children’s learning capabilities. Some, like Sophie, are “unschooled” — she does not follow any particular curriculum but learns by going on field trips and writing and reading about topics she finds interesting.

Homeschooling is not a new trend and has always been practiced by foreign parents in Japan, particularly those on Christian missions. However, as the foreign community grows and diversifies, parents are homeschooling for a wider variety of reasons, and it is becoming an appealing alternative to the expense and exclusivity of international schools.

Singaporean Aileen Kawagoe laments the price tag of a quality education in Japan. “In Singapore, it would only cost a fraction of what international schools do here,” she says. To ensure that her son is bilingual and has a global perspective on life, she supplements his Japanese education with afterschooling at home.

Kawagoe shares her extensive research on homeschooling and other educational issues in Japan in an informative newsletter, which covers everything from comparisons of preschools using the Montessori and Waldorf methods to bullying prevention tactics. The newsletter is featured on a Web site Combs set up last October in an attempt to reach out to other homeschooling practitioners in Japan. The site also includes information on events, resources and suggested educational outings.

The majority of practitioners, both children and parents, seem to enjoy the homeschooling experience. Joseph Jones, who homeschools the older five of his seven children, is committed to this style of teaching. As a missionary for 10 years, he often worked as a private tutor.

“This experience showed me the tremendous potential of being able to mold children in a life that is free of peer pressure and more supportive of their individual interests. I can instill in them a biblical attitude of not living for yourself but helping one another and showing concern for the disadvantaged by your actions.” His children like not having to wake up early in the morning.

For homeschooling parents, the biggest challenge is to provide interesting material constantly to stimulate their children. The School Support Service of the Christian Academy in Higashi Kurume has been an essential resource in providing material and support for parents.

Homeschooling is also done by Japanese parents, but it is often a reactive decision propelled by circumstances such as bullying or school refusal. For many foreign parents who school at home, it is a proactive choice intended to enhance their children’s education.

A major difference is that many foreign universities recognize alternative forms of education and base entrance on aptitude test scores, not high school pedigrees. This remains a major advantage for homeschooling in English. The stigma of homeschooling in Japanese means that it is difficult (though not impossible) to enter Japanese universities without the conventional credentials. As pressure increases to develop more open policies, this is also changing.

Combs feels Japanese parents should have more confidence in teaching their own children, especially if they have concerns about the Japanese school system.

“I hear many mothers who say that they could not possibly teach,” she says. “It’s much easier if you take the attitude of learning along with your children. I feel no pressure to provide all the answers in every subject myself, but I do present learning as fun. I believe all knowledge is connected and one thing will lead to another, so I’m enjoying the wonder of discovery along with my children.”

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