On the wall of a gray concrete apartment building on Kawasaki’s Shinkawa-dori Avenue a colorful sign reads “Kincarn International Preschool.”
Inside a second-floor apartment, Japanese children come up one after another and ask, in English, “How old are you?” “What’s your name?” “Do you speak Japanese?”
Kincarn is one of some 20 international preschools in and around Tokyo. But unlike many other kindergartens designed for foreign children, Kincarn’s class is mostly made up of Japanese children — 40 out of 45 — amid increasing interest among Japanese parents in an early English education.
“I wanted to help parents who want to send their children to international kindergartens but cannot because of the typical policy of not accepting non-English speaking children,” said Kincarn Director Shoko Takizawa.
Takizawa’s dream of opening an international preschool resulted from sending her son to an international preschool in Tokyo, when her husband’s job meant that the family was on standby to move to a foreign country at any time.
“It was good that my son learned English there. But he didn’t get any of what a Japanese kindergartner would learn about Japanese culture, such as origami, ‘hinamatsuri’ (girls’ festival) and ‘koinobori’ (boys’ festival),” said Takizawa, who has a teaching license for both kindergarten and elementary school.
This, along with the fact that there were no international preschools in Kawasaki, moved her to establish Kincarn in April 1998 to teach not just English but also about Japanese and other cultures.
Staffed with child-education specialists from nine countries, Kincarn’s annual schedule has an array of international events, including an Iranian New Year’s festival, a Bulgarian rose festival, a Canadian cowboy day and a U.S. Halloween party, reflecting the nations that the teachers are from.
Kincarn’s staff use English as the medium of instruction, but Japanese is used when necessary.
Takizawa says that early exposure to English is an advantage because children under the age of 6 have a better ear for languages.
“Children learn (English) very quickly just by playing, eating and through other daily activities here,” said Inke Brugman, a teacher at Kincarn.
Brugman, a Dutch native, brushed aside the suggestion that children might get confused about their mother tongue if they start learning another language at an early age.
“Their main source of language-learning is still in the home,” she said. “So it’s clear that Japanese is their first language.”
As if to prove the point, Japanese children at the preschool speak to each other in Japanese.
“It’s OK that they speak in Japanese,” Brugman said. “What’s important is that they learn to be very open-minded at a place like this because it’s such a multicultural environment.”
Japanese parents, meanwhile, hold high hopes that an early start will lead their young sons and daughters to master English, which is gaining more importance as it becomes the de facto international language.
“I decided to send my son here because soon or later, he will need to learn English for work,” said Yoko Umezawa, 34.
“I had a hard time learning English, so I wanted my son to start early,” Umezawa said, adding that she could not send her son to other international preschools because they did not accept non-English speaking Japanese.
Akiko Shibuya, 32, who sends her 2-year-old daughter to Kincarn, said she wanted her daughter to learn English before going to elementary school. “I heard that public elementary schools will be teaching English soon,” she said. “I want my daughter to get a sense of English while very young.”
Under the Education Ministry’s new curriculum from 2002, elementary schools will be able to teach English during “comprehensive studies” hours, in which schools are free to teach anything that is not covered by other subjects.
The English frenzy among young parents is also apparent at a few other international preschools that accept non-English speaking Japanese.
“We get so many phone calls from Japanese parents every day, saying they want to have their children learn English here,” said Tamaki Suzuki, director of Komazawa Park International Preschool in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.
Suzuki, who opened the preschool in March 1999, said she is amazed by how “crazy” Japanese parents are about English. “Some parents even ask us to prohibit the use of Japanese at our school.”
She stresses that the goal of her preschool is not to provide English education to Japanese children but to foster creativity and the talent of each child — whether Japanese or non-Japanese — through free playing, sports and games at nearby Komazawa Park.
Like Kincarn, teachers at Komazawa Park use English as a means of communication. But Japanese children, who account for about one-third of all students there, also speak Japanese among themselves.
Suzuki said Japanese children must first build a solid mental foundation by the age of 3 before even trying to learn another language.
“Most Japanese parents who send their kids here don’t seem to understand that English is not the most important thing at our school,” she said.
“We emphasize more on bringing up children who can think and act on their own,” Suzuki said. “And once they can do that, some of them will start speaking English voluntarily from around age 4.”