A Dissertation By Heather Nelson

Editorial note – because of constraints of space, a slightly abbreviated version of the paper is posted here. The paper is for the most part intact, minus the bibliography, list of schools, a couple of tables and footnotes…


Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education (2006) and School Education Law (1947) state that all Japanese children must undergo compulsory education. This education is for children aged six to fifteen years old, and takes place in elementary and junior high schools. Japan has had exemplary school enrolment figures of over 99.9% for the past thirty years (MEXT, 2005b), and consistently performs well by world academic standards (MEXT, 2005c, 13,14,73; White, 1987, 2). But the system does not adequately cater to the educational needs of all children in Japan. This is evidenced both by a school non-attendance rate of 1.13% at the compulsory education level [1] (calculated from figures available at MEXT, 2005c, 65,66,75), and by the existence of alternative forms of education such as free schools, homeschooling, and church schools.

Until now, academic study and public discourse about education in Japan have focused almost exclusively on what exists within the compulsory education system, and have discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the system at great length. This dissertation offers a different perspective as its starting point is outside the compulsory education system. I will identify existing alternatives to the system, analyze how and why they exist, and discuss how they reflect back on the compulsory system. For the purposes of this dissertation, ‘alternative schooling’ or ‘alternative education’ refers to any schooling or education for Japanese children of compulsory education age which takes place outside of the compulsory education system: in practice, this means education taking place in free schools, homes, or churches that have no official status as educational institutions in Japan.

Free Schools, Homeschooling, and Church Schools Cater to both ‘Opt Out’ and ‘Drop Out’ Students

My research into alternative education in Japan began on a personal level. As I investigated educational options outside the compulsory education system for my own children, I found three main alternatives available in the prefecture where I live: these are free schools, homeschooling, and church schools. Further investigation revealed that these three types of alternative education are available all over Japan. I also discovered that there were other families throughout Japan who had faced an issue that was basically the same as mine: for various reasons, they felt that the compulsory education system could not adequately meet the educational needs of their children.

Some of these families have pro-actively taken matters into their own hands to find, or create, positive alternatives to the compulsory education system, despite the fact that such options fall into a legal grey area and despite the lack of support for these measures from the educational authorities. Their decisions have also often come at considerable personal cost in terms of money, personal involvement and social stigma.  These families are best described as having ‘opted out’ of the compulsory education system, choosing never to send their children to the public schools in which the system has automatically enrolled them, or else choosing to withdraw their children because they have come to believe that the compulsory education system is not the best place for them. This group of families is small and has come into existence recently enough to have received little attention from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (hereafter referred to as MEXT), scant but growing attention from the media and the general public, and as yet very little attention from academic researchers.

There is a second group of families whose educational choices are at least temporarily outside of the compulsory system – this consists of those whose children have ‘dropped out’ of compulsory education and no longer attend the schools in which they are enrolled. This group is far larger and better known than the ‘opt out’ group, and receives the most attention from MEXT, the media, the general public, and academic researchers. Whereas the main goal of the ‘opt out’ group is to find valid and positive alternatives to the compulsory education system, the goal of the ‘drop out’ group and the alternative educational choices they have made is often, though not always, to get the children back into compulsory education.

This dissertation concentrates on defining the roles of free schools, homeschooling and church schools, and these are the themes of the three main chapters. Both ‘opt out’ and ‘drop out’ students are to be found in each of these three types of alternative education, and the effects of their different motivations and needs will be discussed throughout. It should be noted at the outset that, although accurate figures are not available, only a small minority – perhaps ten percent or less – of the children classed as school non-attendees are actually being educated in these three alternative settings.

Research and Methodology

As this dissertation will demonstrate, alternative education in Japan exists largely as a practical response to weaknesses in the compulsory education system. A thorough understanding of the compulsory system, and of academic studies about it, was therefore foundational to my research. Reading widely about alternative education in other countries, where more research has been carried out, also provided useful comparisons and fuel for thought.

Publications and statistics from MEXT furnished valuable background information about the current state of education in Japan, although little specific information about alternative education. Although it has records of the number of children it classes as ‘school non-attendees’ or ‘school refusers’, MEXT has kept no records of their exact educational paths, and appears not to acknowledge that some ‘school refusers’ have actually positively ‘opted out’ of the compulsory education system and are actively pursuing education in less conventional ways. MEXT neither recognizes nor regulates much of what goes on in alternative schooling circles, and the resulting lack of centralized, reliable statistics about alternative education means that my research here has to be primarily qualitative rather than quantitative.

MEXT papers and websites may render alternative schooling almost invisible, but there are thousands of families ‘just getting on with it’ at a grassroots level, and this is where the majority of my research has taken place. If you want to find out about alternative education, you have to find the people involved and talk with them, attend their conferences, visit the places in cyberspace where their scattered communities meet and exchange ideas, find the newspaper articles that feature them, and read the books in which they detail their experiences. This is what I did, and I found that a wealth of information is available to anyone who will take the time to track it down, though a working knowledge of the Japanese language is essential.

The topics of free schools and homeschooling receive some media coverage and are the subject of books available in any Japanese bookstore: personal testimonies of those involved are also readily available to the general public in these forms. I have lived in Japan for the past thirteen years and know many children, parents, and teachers involved in these two types of education: for the purposes of this dissertation, I felt it unnecessary to undertake specific observations of these two groups. The church schools, however, cater mainly to a small and specific group of Christian families: as a result, information about them is not readily available to the general public, except on direct request – and almost all the information is in Japanese. Because so little has been written about this group, I visited three unconnected church schools in three different prefectures, and observed a typical school day in each, asking informal questions of students and teachers in the course of the day. In the afternoon of each observation day, I spent about ninety minutes talking with and interviewing the school principal. All three principals were happy to accommodate me, and eager to show me their school and tell me their stories and beliefs. Information gleaned during these observations is included in Chapter Five, where the schools are referred to as Church Schools A, B and C. School A had 56 students (36 at the compulsory level) for the academic year starting in April 2006, and is located in a large city: School B had 29 students (19 at the compulsory level) and is located in a prefectural capital: and School C had 6 students (4 at the compulsory level) and is located in a smaller country town

[1] ‘Non-attendance at school’ or ‘school refusal’ is currently defined by MEXT (2005d) as ‘an absence of more than thirty days a year due to a refusal to attend school… refusal to attend school may be due to the following: anxiety, emotional disturbance, desire to have fun, or apathy, and may originate from problems in society, at home or in school.’

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