In international education in Japan, there’s diversity between as well as within schools

Four school profiles show the range of philosophies families can choose from


If you have the financial means and the desire to send your child to an international school in Japan, you can probably afford to be choosy. But what are you looking for?

Are you after something closer to the schooling you received “back home,” or an education that’s more flexible in responding to your child’s needs? Is your priority ensuring that your child has the option of fitting into the education system in your home country or elsewhere abroad, or is fostering independent critical thinking your highest priority?

The Japan Times looked closely at four top international schools, each showcasing certain specific developments in modern education. The past 10 years have witnessed a sea change in schools, with technology and globalization transforming the way our children are educated.

Yet before we head off into what’s new in education, let’s introduce the schools and focus on what’s the same. Historically and today, modern education involves some type of examination process to enable entry into university.

The English National Curriculum, studied at the British School in Tokyo (BST), emphasizes depth, with only three subjects required for final examinations. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the American School In Japan (ASIJ) offers a choice of over 20 Advanced Placement (AP) Exams, any number of which students may opt to take at the end of high school. In between these extremes, India International School of Japan (IISJ) students study for five subjects and take exams administered by India’s Central Board of Secondary Education in each. Finally, Osaka International School (OIS), an International Baccalaureate school, requires students to take exams in six subjects in accordance with the IB Diploma Programme.

But there’s more to education than exams, as each school shows.

One recent development in education is a emphasis on experiential learning — learning by doing — which BST has embraced wholeheartedly.

“To us, one of the most important things is what goes on outside the classroom,” principal Brian Christian says. “In Britain, there is a real sense in education that we have a responsibility to help develop character.”

To complement the academic curriculum, BST uses the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to teach students what Christian calls “grit,” or perseverance — getting kids outside and experiencing culture and nature.

“In the secondary school, we take the whole school out of school for a whole week twice during the year,” Christian says. “Using Hakuba (in Nagano Prefecture) as our base, the students travel to different areas, doing community service or expedition work.”

Plans for the future include setting up an educational center for students in the countryside outside of Tokyo, where students will be able to stay and really get stuck into projects in the wild. BST has also started the 19:20 Project, which connects sports and learning in conjunction with the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. Not only does BST hope to focus on the development of sport in the school, but also to become a digital hub of information and learning surrounding the games, examining them in the context of Japanese history, culture and economics, for example.

Christian sees the National Curriculum — used in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and elsewhere — as an effective tool to plot students’ progress throughout their academic lives at BST.

“Imagine a sort of academic ladder,” Christian explains. “The English National Curriculum sets out where children should be on that ladder from the moment they join us at the foundation stage of nursery right the way through to 18 years old, where the student typically sits three or four A-level examinations for university entrance.”

Another exciting trend in global education is the move away from cookie-cutter classroom instruction and toward “design thinking” — creating new and innovative ways to solve problems — and individualized study .

ASIJ epitomizes this cutting-edge approach to schooling.

“We don’t believe in one-size-fits-all,” says head of school Ed Ladd. “It’s really about personalized learning — trying to match our learning to the individual rather than trying to force the individual into a set mold.”

At ASIJ, this means adapting to students’ strengths, whether they be academic or in sports or the arts.

As high school principal Rick Weinland says, “All students have some kind of passion or interest — we want to create a pathway for every student.”

In August ASIJ will open its newest facility, a center for design thinking and collaboration called the Creative Arts Design Center. The school already boasts state-of-the-art facilities for athletics and the arts, in line with its ethos of “multiple pathways” to success. With the new facility, the administration hopes to nurture students to become “creative, innovative thinkers” — or, in many cases, teach them to relearn these skills that, ironically, schooling may have dulled in the first place.

“We know elementary kids by nature think creatively that way,” Ladd explains, “but traditional schooling sometimes educates that part of their brains out of them as they grow, and we wanted to make sure we had practices in place to nurture innovation and creativity.”

Such practices include Choice Genius Hour — 50 minutes each week where middle-school students choose what they will study — in addition to RED (robotics, engineering and design) courses in middle school and the CID (Creativity, Innovation and Design) program at high-school level.

ASIJ upper-secondary students choose from a wide variety of options in constructing their own unique path to university, made up of a combination of classes to prepare for the AP Exams (created by the same nonprofit that runs the SAT college entrance test), Global Online Academy courses and Individual Inquiry and Research options, ASIJ’s new twist on the old “independent study” method, in which the student chooses a subject under the supervision of a teacher.

Amid the current push to educate “world citizens,” schools today recognize the importance of simultaneously fostering a strong national and international identity. IISJ was established in 2004 with the support of both the Japanese and Indian governments, and remains true to its ethos to “provide a home away from home.”

“The education they would be given at home in India is the same as the one they are getting here,” explains director of school and founder Nirmal Jain. “The culture is the same as in India with the cultural environment we provide, the Indian food we serve, our extra-curricular activities — with cricket, Indian music and Indian classical dance.”

Jain credits her multicultural staff with bringing the “international” into this otherwise Indian environment. Jain believes it is vital that the staff “emphasize about different cultures and different perspectives,” and the school includes local excursions on its curriculum — such as rice planting in Ibaraki or hiking in Nikko — to connect with the local culture in Japan.

In addition to the five subjects studied for examinations, IISJ also follows India’s new CCE (continuous comprehensive evaluation) system.

“There was a lot of pressure on the students, so to distribute assessments over the year, we continuously assess students now from April to March,” Jain explains. “If a child is not good at expressing themselves in written examinations, they now have the formative assessments — including the teacher’s assessment of projects, behavior, submission of homework, or the child’s interaction with other students or teachers the entire year — as a chance to do well.”

Like 31 other schools around Japan and over 4,000 more around the world, the Osaka and Senri International Schools affiliated with Kwansei Gakuin University use the International Baccalaureate program, a recognized trailblazer in international education. OIS was the first school in Japan to offer a full range of IB programs catering from elementary age to high-school level. The school is unique in Japan in that it was founded according to the idea of “Two Schools Together,” with Senri International School (SIS), a “category I” local Japanese school, sharing a campus and various programs with its sister school, OIS.

OIS plans to expand its IB Diploma Programme to offer the new Dual Language Diploma (in Japanese and English) across both schools, in addition to the current DP in English.

“We have a firm commitment to the IB, and we really believe in working together as two schools, immersed in Japanese culture and language along with our internationalism,” says OIS head of school Bill Kralovec. “An international school can sometimes exist in a bubble, isolated from the local culture, but in sharing a campus, we share a variety of classes and all the extra-curricular activities, from sports and the arts to student council and academic competitions.”

The faculties of both schools benefit as well, he says: “Japan is a distinct culture with an established way of doing things, so it’s a very stimulating environment for education, always making you question and improve your teaching practices.”

Another thing the two schools share is a commitment to is their fine arts program. Kralovec calls it “truly world class,” with four different string orchestras, a variety of bands and choruses, not to mention a two-school theatrical production involving students from grades three through 12.

Following the IB program, upper-secondary students at OIS choose six subjects to study at higher or standard level, in addition to completing the IB Core, which consists of an extended essay (a mini-thesis), a Theory of Knowledge (philosophy) essay and CAS (a program that requires students to get credits in the fields of creativity, action and community service). The IB Diploma is recognized throughout the world.

Whatever school you choose, Japan’s diverse international system spoils you for choice, and your decision will depend on what is the best fit for your child and your future plans. Does your child need structure or freedom with choosing classes? Depth or breadth? Grit or innovation? What cultural identities are the most important within your family?

Of course, an international education doesn’t appeal to everyone, and with such schools charging often-hefty annual fees, the financial burden will be an issue for all but a tiny minority of families when deciding which school their child will attend. However, it is worth bearing in mind that some international schools offer scholarship programs based on academic ability and/or financial need, so parents may be unwise to write off the option of an international education without checking out the options first.

It’s an exciting time for education, and with over 100 international schools in Japan to choose from, perhaps the right answer for you and your child is out there somewhere.

For a comprehensive list of internationally minded schools in Japan, see long-time educational blogger Aileen Kawagoe’s site: educationinjapan.wordpress.com/the-scoop-on-schools. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Firas Kraïem

    How much did the schools pay for this advertorial?

    • They need the good press; ASIJ (mentioned in this article) and some other international schools in Japan have been rocked by serious sex abuse scandals and cover-ups that have gone on for decades with dozens of known victims. Even The Japan Times has covered this in past articles. They may not survive the lawsuits which are still ongoing.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    “If you have the financial means.” Indeed, but why is there no data on just what you need in the way of financial means? I have not yet checked the fees for the schools in this article but I have checked them for international schools taken up in previous Japan Times articles. Typically, the fees are around twice what elite private universities in Japan charge. I suspect that if this article discussed the costs of sending even one child to one of these schools, most readers would suffer acute sticker shock.

    Further, the article avoids the very real question of whether it is good for children to attend schools where all the other children come from families with very deep pockets. One part of a well-rounded education for children is learning that not everyone has the income that lets them send their kids to very pricey international schools.

    • Steve

      Seconded. The Brit School (in the pic) charges 2,235,000 yen a year. That’s about half of median income (before tax) in Japan….. for one kid.
      I wonder what kind of “diversity between as well as within schools” that inspires.

  • It’s not only about money, guys… (and there are different price levels)
    When you are in a bi-national family, it’s a very important question to decide the type of education that best matches your future plans.
    Each country provides a public education system to cater for the 95% of kids who are not in this situation and it’s perfectly normal. But it’s also necessary to have an offer (yes, private schools) for children who will have to build their education across several countries and cultures.
    The article is interesting, I think.

  • Btd

    What I miss is a really good study on all the private schools in Japan. It is very difficult to decide which school to send my child for example. I visited two schools and even by not looking at the money involved I just couldn’t make a decision. To many criteria are just to “soft” to make an informed decision. A good study would help. Although this article was interesting it didn’t do anything to help me….

  • Toolonggone

    No doubt four international schools in the article provide an excellent model of innovation in curriculum and instructional learning. It’s way better than Success Academy (a notorious NYC-based cram school), KIPP, or any privatized education programs that select students by lottery but funded by taxpayer’s money (i.e., charters, vouchers). My big questions are 1) how many Japanese kids have a chance to receive educational privilege?; and 2) should critical thinking and cultural diversity be privilege exclusive to those affluent families in Japan?

    • The notion that only these “non-Japanese” schools teach “critical thinking” is a racist myth, concocted during the era when westerners needed an excuse as to why they are grossly overpaying for an English education. (“Oh yeah, Johnny may not be so good at reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but at least he isn’t turned into a robot with that rote memorization that those Asian schools do to our precious snowflakes!”)

      Studies have shown for some time now that not just Japanese, but other countries school systems, are as good as — if not better — than the non-Japanese schools when it comes to critical thinking.

      • Toolonggone

        Critical thinking does not emerge from the classroom in which +35 students are consuming what appears in the textbook and writing down each and every single word popped up in the blackboard. It certainly doesn’t without tenacious effort and creativity from teachers to bring in the classroom. It certainly won’t happen if your teacher is simply relying on same-old cookie cutter MEXT’s instructional guidance. It certainly won’t without teacher’s deep understanding of student’s emotional need and caring. It is way more profound and complicate than you think as cliche for some westerners making an ‘excuse.’ Just because you are a native speaker of English does not make you competent in such endeavor.

      • kyushuphil

        I’ve the same allergy as you to regimentation.

        I experienced sufficient regimentation in the U.S. Army nearly 50 years ago. That was when we were having a happy, happy war, led by all the great whiz kids, rationalists, “best and brightest.”

        I was a grunt, a Viet translator — and I could see pretty clearly what happens when all the great “critical thinking” simply ignores the human.

        Funny thing is that, while Japanese schools today swim in the mindlessness of rote logic, group activities, all the great Japanese for previous centuries all got to be that way for their willingness, their ability, to see the human.

        “Critical thinking”: you know, that’s Greek for our ability, our willingness, to see?

      • kyushuphil

        Please recall what recent Nobel laureate Shuji Nakamura said.

        The Japanese excel, he noted (with facts) at innovation. But they fail too often, and at too high stakes, in the global marketplace.

        Please recall Haruki Murakami’s distress, post 3-11, in remarks he gave in a speech in Catalonia that year — distress at the regimentation in Japanese life which results in too much silence from too many, too much passivity in the face of really quite massive corporate criminality.

        Please include, for perspective, the contexts afforded by Miyuki Miyabe in her novel, “All She Was Worth,” on the pressures on young women, and by Kirino Natsuo, on the pressures on more women.

        Nakamura. Murakami. Miyabe. Kirino. All great critical voices. All anguished at the need for more critical thinking.

      • If we’re not going to use measured, scientific appraisals of critical thinking ability (not to mention bend the definition: none of those four examples you brought up are actually talking about formal scholastic “critical thinking”), and rather just use anecdotes and opinions by famous people, you should probably include, for balance, the hundreds of anecdotes and personal opinions of great western minds which state variants of the opinion “this [pick a western education system] is a failure and the kids can’t think and the schools are doomed” as well.

      • kyushuphil

        Copulative verb forms allow only labeling.

        So if you think all the arts, or even many of them, are based on copulatives such as “this is” or “it was,” you are leaving out the greater dynamism of all the humanities, not to mention the role of active verbs.

        If you can respect the humanities, you won’t just dismiss them as anecdotals.

        Those who speak wonk speak only — and never access the humanities — fail to understand how different, human (including natural and social world) perspectives allow larger contexts, more comparisons, fuller views of cause and effect, and the full panoply of ways of “seeing” that the words “critic” and “critical” from the Greek originally meant.

        Those who hold themselves above the humanities don’t just reduce life to numbers but, worse, to the gross materialism and money vulgarity that corporate culture has ruling today.

        These void of the humanities may think they’ve more mathematically-correct “critical” lexicons — but without humanity these can never rise above wonk speak.

        The costs of such reduced diction go way, way beyond the ability of such imaginatively reduced ever to see even their own guaranteed, inevitable damages. (See George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”)

      • In other words, “let’s not talk about anything that can be measured because metrics are not on my side. Let’s focus on the subjective, because I can state whatever I want and not be proven wrong!”

      • kyushuphil

        I like baseball, where stats well measure quality of play.

        I like getting paychecks. I look at prices in stores.

        No one is denying the usefulness of counting, numbering.

        I learned long ago — I was a Viet translator in an abysmally idiotic war — to distrust those who cherish numbers totally above the human . The best and the brightest indeed. As you yourself exhibit, your ilk has a snickering quality.

      • Steve Jackman

        kyushuphil wrote to Eido INOUE, “As you yourself exhibit, your ilk has a snickering quality.” I couldn’t have said it any better. Just looove your comment!

      • kyushuphil

        Thanks, Steve.

        Trouble is, as I saw during Nam war, the “rationalists” really do arrogate themselves over what they consider, and dismiss, as mere humanity.

        We lost that nasty, stupid war for a very good reason: our materialism, our delivery systems, our data analysis — all vaunted by White Papers all the time — never deigned to account for the human.

        Same thing now in education. So many “higher” ed specialists in so many departments who can never allow themselves ever to refer to anything corroborative from anything in the humanities.

        And in K-12, American kids now suffocate under regimes of standardized testing just as Japanese youth have long been prey to similar predators.

        The corporate interests rule. They’re going to mega-steroid themselves with TPP. And their abettors, people like our dear friend here, will forever go on snickering, proud to be of the new Blade Runner class now without an ounce of humanity.

      • Toolonggone

        Well congratulations! You will be welcome to reformer thinker movement.

      • zer0_0zor0

        Murakami is a pop culture figure…

      • kyushuphil


        His novels all float on pop culture detritus, plus a few mystic Buddhist trap doors to “other levels.”

        But he’ll be remembered long after his novels have all been forgotten — remembered for the great speech he gave in Catalonia, June, 2011.

  • Liars N. Fools

    If one is a foreigner resident in Japan with school age children, the best approach is to ask the chamber of commerce and/or the Embassy not so much for a recommendation but information on where they send their children and why. Reading this article is just getting PR from the schools.

    • Maybe not a great idea unless you’re in the same boat as them (“expat package”); a lot of those people have their “expat lifestyle” subsidized by the government and/or a big corporation giving them stipends/perks for their “overseas hardship”; they aren’t used to having to pay full price for the way they live.

  • paul martin

    I am British and the British school is a private organization like all the other private schools in Japan, it has nothing to do with Britain as a country whatsoever !