Alternative Education in Japan: Introduction

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.’

NEXT PAGE: The Context and the Challenges of Alternative Education

18 thoughts on “Alternative Education in Japan: Introduction”

  1. I become very much interested in this topic. I am a fourth year college student taking up three units in alternative education.It is very much of a good help in thinking of more alternative ways to educate people for their own good.

    Also, we actually have this project proposal paper on the said subject for new ways of alternative education. Free school is not present in my country but I’m very glad to find new strategies and programs here.

    For the sake of my proposal, I’ll be using the concept of free schools to be patterned to my country’s educational setting for I’m pretty much sure that it’ll be a good help to improve the Alternative Learning System.

    With that, I would like to give you a credit in my paper for the information that I’ll be using and modifying for it. Thank you very much. It was indeed a good help!

    1. Thank you. Do send us an abstract of your paper when you have submitted it and had it approved. I am sure we would all be interested to read your ideas and proposals. Regards, A. K.

  2. Great read! I’m currently doing research in Tokyo on alternative education in Japan, and would very much like a copy of this dissertation if possible. Is there any way to get access to it? Would it be possible to get in contact with the author, Heather Nelson?

  3. Hello, we are three elementary school teachers from Finland, planning a trip to Japan in June 6-16, 2016. Our main purpose of the trip is to learn more about alternative education in Japan. We have a few connections there, but suddenly it appears we can’t visit all the places we were planning to. We even got a scholarship to do this. We would very much like to find new connections in Japan in this somewhat desperate situation. Plane tickets reserved, scholarship in our pocket … Must we cancel this long awaited trip? :´( I wonder if you could help us in finding new connections?

    1. I don’t understand, what is the problem you have had?
      There is a long list of schools, and in the directory as well. Have you written or emailed all of them?

    2. Since there are three of you, might I suggest that ou divide up your list of schools and go on a writing blitz and write/email/phone as many schools as you can to see which ones will take you on. I suggest any or a combination of these – Waldorf / Montessori / Sudbury-Summerhill free schools. The Forest or Mountain schools, and the new Moomin International School which are based on the Scandinavian and Finnish schools ought to be very receptive to having you I imagine – you can track them down at the directories on this page

  4. Thank you very much for the information!

    The problem is that our trip is only 3 weeks away and suddenly our first contact in Tokyo has not responded to our inquiries. Contact problems for almost 10 days now. If for some reason they can’t host us after all, we are in big trouble. Going to Japan with a scholarship money and not doing the things we applied the money for is not a good thing! We have not been able to make any hotel reservations, either. Nerve-wrecking situation.

    So, we need to start working on a plan B and that means finding schools who would accept us to visit them. Seeing how alternative education works in Japan was our main interest.

    So, now I’ll start going through the schools in the list you sent me.

    Thank you! 😀

  5. Oh we have just had our Golden Week holidays and schools have been closed since 28th, and we all just got back to school yesterday. If your first contact host had already accepted you as guests, it is likely they will respind to you within this week. GW is the busiest holiday when most leave the country on holiday and do not check their working email accounts.

    1. Oh, thank you so much, dear heritageofjapan!!!

      Such a lot of valuable information you gave me. 😀

      Yes, we have been accepted as guests already many weeks ago. But no details (like hotels, exact days etc.) have been fixed. I thought they freaked out when we actually got the scholarship. 😉 But now I understand the delay and stop panicking!

      Arigatoo gozaimaisu!

      EMT 🙂

      1. what are your dates? and what systems of alternative education would you like to explore? I have a school for you in mind that I could arrange a meeting for, but there would be no point if you came in the middle of the school summer holidays. Please give me your email for further correspondence offline. Aileen

  6. P.S. Re accommodation, you can always try bnb hotel hub, or capsule hotels. There are also new hotels which are unlikely to be filled to the brim. Don’t worry you’ll find something, you should also know that most tour agencies block-book hotel accommodation which gives the impression that at there are no vacancies, but closer to the date of travel, vacant rooms always turn up as the tour agents let go of their unbooked ones. Put yourself on waiting lists for a few hotels, ask what your likelihood of getting a room looks like. The most popular mid-range and centrally located to train station ones might be take during holiday seasons (of locals or of incoming travelers) but otherwise something should free up. I am a fairly seasoned traveler in Japan, and usually have to make bookings close to my scheduled dates, and can understand your panic. You might be facing the starting of the June summer holiday break though, so there could be a crush then as well. Try bnb or smaller lesser known minshukus which are rarely empty, depending on where you go. The steiner schools I think are located in Fujisawa, Kanagawa, which is close enough to Tokyo, but slightly off the tourist track, so I am certain you will be able to find accommodation in local business hotels which are fairly cheap compared to Tokyo locations. Even if you find yourselves at a loss for major online hotel bookings, if you are not too picky there WILL ALWAYS be room in local satellite city hotels within a year half an hour radius of metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka. YMCA and Youth hostels are also very decent accommodation in Japan, and at easily accessible points. Oh and good luck!

  7. I opened my email and there it was – our host school welcoming us and providing us with a lot of details!!! So happy!

    And on the list of schools you gave to me yesterday there are a few that we still might contact. Thank you!

    1. what are your dates? and what systems of alternative education would you like to explore? I have a school for you in mind that I could arrange a meeting for, but there would be no point if you came in the middle of the school summer holidays. Please give me your email for further correspondence offline. Aileen

  8. Friday June 10 now seems to be the (only) day that we could visit another alternative school (grades 1-6?) in Tokyo or surroundings. Now that our first contact has come back from vacation and confirmed that we can go there, June 6-9 !! 😀

    We googled the Moomin kindergarten and for us Finns it seemed very funny! 😉 No plans to contact them. But definitely, seeing another school would be nice, too. Sudbury / Summerhill?

  9. Dear colleagues, Heather Nelson’s text on alternative education in Japan is a very useful resource, and I would like to quote it in my work. Would you be able to send me a full version of the paper? Many thanks in advance and kind regards. SK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s