As my older son, Vincent, wound his way up the grades of Japanese elementary school, my wife and I faced a conundrum.

On the one hand, junior high school’s military-style uniforms, the harshness of sports coaches and other restrictive practices did not agree with Vincent’s personality, which seemed better suited to an American school environment. On the other hand, he wasn’t suffering from any serious problems, such as bullying, and was performing reasonably well. Since we didn’t live close to any private schools, the local junior high seemed like our only option.

Then I stumbled upon Oak Meadow, a virtual school for grades kindergarten through 12. Students can either utilize its home-schooling program independently or submit schoolwork and eventually graduate. We chose the latter program, which means Vincent shares his work with a teacher via Google Docs and receives feedback. Parents are encouraged not to check assignments beforehand so the teacher can see the child’s original work. Despite its hippie roots, Oak Meadow is an accredited school. Its “progressive, compassionate and child-centered” curriculum, was exactly the approach we’d been seeking.

This year, in eighth grade, Vincent is taking algebra along with “electives” to supplement the core courses of math, science and social studies. These include: Khan Academy, a free online platform that has expanded into subjects other than math; Lingoda, a language-learning site that he uses to take Spanish lessons via Skype; the Japanese Online Institute, to prepare for the N2 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test; and “How to Draw” videos on the Great Courses Plus website. For music, he takes standard piano lessons.

For friendships, he interacts online with Minecraft gaming friends. Other than his younger brother — who will attend a local junior high school next year — and the dogs, the lack of interaction with flesh-and-blood children is a significant drawback.

This online education, which is preparing Vincent to attend a high school in the U.S., shows families abroad have options beyond state, private or international schools.

I spoke with other parents who have chosen varied educational paths, in search of insights into how well Japanese schools were or weren’t working. Perhaps these diverse experiences can provide families with options and society with clues regarding future educational reforms.

Clubs out: Mary Nobuoka
Clubs out: Mary Nobuoka’s son (right) studies after school with a friend. The son has thrived socially despite avoiding club activities in junior high. | COURTESY OF MARY NOBUOKA

Archaic or effective?

One major concern for foreign parents is the standard of English-language classes. In the opinion of Jessie James Lucky, a father of two and longtime assistant language teacher in elementary and junior high school, “Most English classes are horrible abominations that nobody should be subjected to ever.”

Japanese students score poorly in comparison with most of their international peers on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, which measures English proficiency, despite the huge English language school industry that supplements the compulsory instruction all schoolchildren in Japan receive. For 2016, Japanese test-takers achieved an average TOEFL score of 71, trailed only by Laos and a handful of African and Central Asian countries.

But Lucky’s criticisms, like those of many foreign parents, go beyond failures in English.

“Teachers are supposed to fill facts into students en masse in a factory format,” he says. “There is little time or motivation for the teachers to verify and update those facts once they are certified and hired.”

However, not all foreign parents agree. Mary Nobuoka, whose son is a senior in junior high school, feels education here is easily superior to what kids get in her home country.

The word “rigor,” she says, “is being thrown around in the U.S., but what we have here is rigor.”

Nobuoka points out that during the summer holiday, which is just one month in Japan compared to three in the States, youth are provided academic focus with homework and project work.

“My son made a lemon battery one year, and two other years he did paintings,” she says.

One friend, whom Nobuoka refers to as a “foreign guru mother,” made the somewhat radical assertion that a child who does not go through Japan’s elementary school system cannot “be Japanese.” Key elements of the Japanese state system are that students help clean the school, serve lunch, are required to greet others and are expected to join a club.

While Nobuoka admires these elements, what makes her son’s experience different to that of the average Japanese student is that he has thrived socially despite avoiding clubs in junior high school. Given the demands of some clubs, students can find their unstructured time cut to near zero — an unenviable situation, at least from a Western parent’s perspective.

Even though Nobuoka’s son’s friends are extremely busy with club activities — be it a sport, craft or hobby — they still regularly hang out. Her son teaches these friends hip-hop, and they also sometimes appear on his YouTube channel, in videos that have become more sophisticated and popular over the years. One was even shown at the University of Nagoya Film Festival.

Nobuoka also refutes what is often foreign parents’ biggest concern about state schools: that students are not taught critical thinking. She points out that from elementary school the coursework includes media literacy. And the proof, Nobuoka says, is in the pudding: The average Japanese student excels on the PISA test, which “is a critical thinking and problem-solving test, not just a multiple choice content-based test.”

PISA — the Programme for International Students Assessment — is arguably the most comprehensive global academic comparison. Targeting 15-year-olds because they are at or nearing the end of compulsory education, PISA tests science, reading and mathematics ability. The last triennial comparison, published in 2015, shows Japan at or near the top of the class. Compared to 2012 data, scores improved in science, moving Japan into second place behind only Singapore. Meanwhile, only a select few countries had higher mean scores for reading and mathematics.

However, behind the impressive rankings lies a thorny question. What happens to the “losers” in the system? For example, there are an estimated half a million hikikomori in Japan between the ages of 15 and 39 — people virtually unable to leave their rooms. Worse, Japan’s youth suicide rate is 60 percent higher than the global average. What options are out there for kids who just don’t feel they belong in the Japanese school system and are in danger of falling through the cracks?

When public schools fail

While teachers were pushing kids to excel in clubs or in their studies, Yuuli didn’t fit anywhere. What started with cutting classes eventually led to Yuuli physically cutting his body.

The downward spiral continued as he became futōkō — one of the growing number of children in Japan who refuse to attend school. Among Yuuli’s classmates there were no fewer than 12 who became futōkō, a drop in the ocean of the 100,000 children nationwide who are staying home. And the issue, his British mother surmises, had nothing to do with the fact he stood out as half-Japanese.

“It’s bulls—-” was Yuuli’s frank assessment of junior high school.

Struggling with a range of issues including Asperger’s syndrome, by junior high school Yuuli had graduated from futōkō to full-blown hikikomori, self-destructive and suicidal.

“The schools failed him miserably,” his mother says.

She had not been particularly impressed with how her three older children had been schooled, but with Yuuli she experienced total system failure.

“They didn’t seem to care,” she says. “It took a year and a half for them to tell me there was a school counselor! She wasn’t much help, but the homeroom teacher did eventually refer us to an outreach program.”

That step proved crucial. The outreach program in Osaka referred him to the Kansai Culture and Art High School — known as Kanbun — an international school in Osaka linked to the Clark School network and founded by mountaineer Yuichiro Miura, the oldest person ever to climb Mount Everest.

Over 11,000 kids attend a Clark School in Japan. The schools are named after the 19th century American educator William S. Clark, who famously said “Boys, be ambitious.” Their aim is to encourage youth to find and pursue their passion without excessive concern for test scores or the rigid approaches that come with public school.

With a more holistic approach, Yuuli found and pursued his passion in the clarinet. At graduation, the child with Asperger’s — who would only leave the house with his head buried in a hoodie, staring straight down, planning to end his own life — played the role of emcee, riffing with the crowd. After his clarinet performance, which included a nine-minute solo, the headmaster told him he looked forward to someday paying to hear him perform.

Despite the passion Yuuli feels for the clarinet, his mother emphasizes that this was just a relatively minor piece in the puzzle of fulfillment. She says the Kanbun community, teachers and students fully accept each child, with all their tics and quirks, and prioritize effort and relationship-building over academic results.

While Kanbun and similar schools cost ¥1 million or more a year, public schools are not exactly cheap either. Japan resident Karl Hedberg learned as much when his ex-wife handed him a ¥500,000 bill for their two daughters’ public high school education.

Mixed bag: American Diane Tincher home-schools one of her eight children. Some of her kids were home-taught while others went to local schools.
Mixed bag: American Diane Tincher home-schools one of her eight children. Some of her kids were home-taught while others went to local schools. | COURTESY OF DIANE TINCHER

Mother as teacher

Diane Tincher, a mother of eight, devised her own curriculum and taught the material garnered from books and websites herself. With her home-schooling days now behind her, she recalls: “The thought never occurred to me that there was such a thing as ‘me time.’ Seriously.”

Four of Tincher’s American kids were home-schooled while living in Japan — some exclusively, while one intermittently studied at a public school. Although she is now agnostic, she was initially motivated by her religion, educational expediency and concerns about perceived rigidity. Citing large classes of up to 40 students, Tincher felt she could teach her kids more efficiently. She “bristled at the militaristic atmosphere of Japanese public schools” and the requirement to “sit seiza (on their heels) while enduring long, boring speeches.”

Tincher goes on to note that her home-schooled kids may have had their struggles socially, but they have proven to be academically head-and-shoulders above their peers. Now, all three who were exclusively home-schooled are well-adjusted, successful adults. One received a graduate school scholarship to study law, and all settled into careers that have allowed them to live in relative comfort.

Meanwhile, one son who went through the Japanese school system struggled with culture shock at his university in the U.S. and was eventually diagnosed with “situational depression” and asked to withdraw.

Despite that, Tincher doesn’t consider home-schooling superior.

“I robbed my kids of the opportunities they needed for socialization, friends, clubs and consistency,” she explains. “My kids that did go to public schools here developed impressive self-discipline. Two of them who went through army boot camp said that it was a cinch compared to Japanese school.”

And one son who attended a “mediocre” public high school in Japan later excelled. He received a full scholarship at a U.S. college where he founded and presided over the economics association, was inducted into the International Economics Honor Society, and then graduated cum laude in economics.

It almost seems as if each child had a destiny that neither schooling nor home-schooling could interfere with.

Trouble abroad

Between school hours, homework and club activities, schooling dominates a youth’s life. The long arm of the school may forbid kids from leaving their homes before 9 a.m. during summer vacation and demand children wear hard helmets walking to and from school — those are two head-scratchers my family has had to deal with. Some report teachers snooping in a nearby park, looking for students breaking any number of school rules, often uniform-related.

One father, who has lived in Japan nearly 40 years, and his son, Kelly, felt Japanese schools were overly controlling.

“My son was not allowed to stay at a friend’s house on weekends,” he explains. “This was a school rule. I don’t understand the reasoning.”

While Kelly wasn’t having any serious problems, neither was he thriving in Japan. However, life at a boarding school in the U.S. quickly unraveled.

“Kelly got totally carried away smoking marijuana,” the father says. “Even the other kids were saying, ‘Whoa, take it easy.’ He eventually got expelled.”

It’s clear that in Kelly’s case, schooling abroad didn’t have the desired effect academically. For better or worse, Kelly is now a diving instructor on an island in Vietnam.

To protect their privacy, “Yuuli” and “Kelly” are pseudonyms.

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