Issues | LEARNING CURVE

All-Japanese families take a chance on international schools

by Teru Clavel

“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