Michiko Sonobe (not her real name) was nervous before an interview with authorities at a prestigious kindergarten in Yokohama as part of her 21/2-year-old son’s entrance examination last November.
Many questions sprang to her mind. How should her son behave during the interview? What kind of answers should she prepare? What should she wear on the day of the interview? Which would give a better impression — a conservative Hanae Mori dress or a Burberry suit?
Every year at entrance examination time Yokohama and other major cities are abuzz with rumors that kindergarten application forms will be distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis, prompting parents to line up in front of popular kindergartens to ensure their child doesn’t miss out.
Only for the few
Applying for elite kindergartens is known in Japanese as o-juken.
Tamagawa Gakuen Kindergarten in Machida, western Tokyo, is one such prestigious institution. Last year, 94 children applied for the 50 places available for 3-year-olds, and 64 for the 20 places available for 4-year-olds.
Tamagawa Gakuen selects children by examining “their level of energy” during the interview, according to officials.
“Our education policy is to respect the individuality of the children, so we look for children who can say what their dreams for their future are,” said Yasunori Hiraoka, a spokesperson for the kindergarten.
But the way children react during the selection process is not the only decisive factor. Many kindergartens also consider parents’ career and educational backgrounds.
An official at the popular Aoyama Gakuin Kindergarten in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward said it does take into consideration parents’ professions although “it doesn’t mean that we will give special advantage (to candidates) if their parents are doctors.”
Nobuo Ogawa, head of the Institution of Contemporary Education and Culture, an organization affiliated with a publishing house, and a former visiting professor at Tamagawa University, said many kindergartens, however, are now staying away from screening applicants in this way.
“Elite kindergartens used to check the candidate’s family circumstances, including what kind of newspapers the family subscribed to and if they owned a house,” Ogawa said.
This seems to be changing, however.
Akira Suzuki, the head teacher at Morimura Gakuen Kindergarten, another popular institution in Yokohama, said it does not ask the parents to fill in their educational backgrounds and professions on the application form.
“Even during interviews, we do not ask what the parents do for a living,” a Morimura Gakuen official said.
In screening pupils, Morimura Gakuen officials said the school looks at whether the child can get along with other children as well as giving simple tests like whether the child can say “hello” and “thank you.”
Yet, only wealthy families can afford to put their children into such kindergartens, as the education costs amount to more than 1 million yen in the first year alone.
The entrance fee for Tamagawa Gakuen, for example, is 150,000 yen and the annual tuition costs 830,000 yen. For Aoyama Gakuin Kindergarten in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, the tuition is 500,000 yen a year in addition to the entrance fee of 350,000 yen and the facility maintenance fee of 650,000 yen.
According to a 1999 survey by the Education Ministry, the average annual tuition and other fees for a pupil at a private kindergarten was about 278,000 yen in Tokyo.
While these high-class kindergartens are selective in accepting pupils, many other institutions are trying to stay afloat as the nation’s falling birthrate has forced nearly 100 kindergartens to close annually in recent years.
According to an Education Ministry poll, the number of kindergartens in Japan has dwindled from 15,156 in 1995 to 14,451 in 1999, as the number of children attending kindergarten dropped from 2.45 million in 1993 to 1.77 million in 2000.
Dual-income married couples tend to choose nursery schools as they stay open longer, making it easier for couples to juggle work and family obligations. Nursery schools also take children from babyhood, whereas kindergartens accept those age 3 or older.
Nursery school fees are also less than those of kindergartens, since most nursery schools do not have a fixed fee but charge in accordance with the family income.
This has helped boost the number of private nursery schools across the country from 9,312 in 1996 to 9,473 in 2000, while many kindergartens are struggling to stay open.
But some kindergartens are finding their niche in the field of early education and successfully securing pupils.
Kinnohoshi Kindergarten, which opened about 10 years ago in Kohoku New Town, a quiet residential area in Yokohama’s Tsuzuki Ward — home to many nuclear families — is an example.
“Here you are” (gesturing to hand something), “Thank you!” “You’re welcome”: A British teacher talks to the children in English at the kindergarten and the children repeat after him.
Kinnohoshi, which has about 450 pupils, offers English and other specialized classes like music, gymnastics, kanji writing and haiku reading.
The parents of 3- and 4-year-old children flock to the relatively new kindergarten every winter to apply for entrance the following spring, sometimes queuing up for as long as a week.
Fumie Oyama, the head teacher at Kinnohoshi, stressed that it is important to foster children’s auditory sense before age 4, when it reaches its peak, adding that the kindergarten adapts English and other classes for that purpose.
Yumi Ishikawa, mother of two sons who both graduated from Kinnohoshi, said she chose the institution for her children because she thought it had a distinct goal in early education.
“But frankly speaking, when I look back now, I’ve come to think that any kindergarten could have been the same, as children adopt to any environment easily. It doesn’t make any difference as long as my children are happy.”