Alternative Education in Japan: The context and the challenges


The Demands of the Compulsory Education System

On Paper …

Japan’s post-war Constitution (1946) and Fundamental Law of Education (2006) form the legal basis for the compulsory education system. Article 26 of the Constitution of Japan states that, ‘All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided by law’, and ‘All people shall be obligated to have all boys and girls under their protection receive ordinary education as provided for by law. Such compulsory education shall be free’.

Japan’s new Fundamental Law of Education, enacted in 2006, maintains the wording of the 1947 law, which it replaced, in stating that ‘The people shall all be given equal opportunities of receiving education according to their ability, and they shall not be subject to educational discrimination on account of race, creed, sex, social status, economic position, or family origin’ (Article 4: Equal Opportunity of Education), and that ‘The people shall be obligated to have boys and girls under their protection receive a general education…’ (Article 5: Compulsory Education). The 1947 School Education Law deals with the practical application of the Fundamental Law of Education.

… and in Practice

What happens in practice is that all children of Japanese parents automatically receive notice of which local school they have been enrolled in, and when they should begin school.  As far as most people are concerned, the parents’ basic responsibility for the child’s education then lies simply in preparing the things that the school tells them to prepare (school bag, sports clothes, etc.) and making sure that the child attends.

Children are automatically enrolled in the school nearest to their home, and until 1997 there was little provision for a child to transfer between schools. In 1997, MEXT loosened the school district system, advising local education boards to be flexible about applications for children to change schools for reasons such as bullying, violence or health problems (Nemoto, 1999, 18; MEXT, 1997).

In the current system, the proscribed nine years of compulsory education cover six years at elementary school and three at junior high school, meaning that the child is in compulsory education from the age of six to the age of fifteen. While private schools are available at elementary and junior high school level, (only 1% of elementary schools and 6.4% of junior high schools were private in 2004), it is not until the non-compulsory level, i.e. high school, that there is a great range of educational options available to the average Japanese family (29.5% of high schools were private in 2004) (MEXT, 2005c, 4).

Parents may enrol their child in a MEXT-approved private school, or under certain circumstances they may ask for an exemption or postponement of compulsory education for their child, although this is rare. MEXT figures show that in 2004, 91 children were granted exemption from compulsory education for health-related reasons; 147 because they were ‘consigned to homes for the education and training of juvenile delinquents’; and a further 2,198 children for unspecified ‘other’ reasons (MEXT, 2005a). A marginal note to Article 22 of the School Education Law says that the education board may, at its own discretion, admit an exception for families where one of the parents has a foreign nationality (Ichihara, 2002; see also MEXT, 1984): an unspecified number of such cases are contained in this figure.

Dealing with the rigid automatic enrolment system, and the school and education board officials who enforce it, is a challenging and often worrying experience for parents choosing alternative education for their children. Ironically, even the ‘opt out’ families who actively choose not to send their children to state schools usually end up with them still enrolled in the schools.

The First Challenge: The Law

‘Dropping Out’ is Tolerated, and ‘Opt Out’ Families Benefit from this

School non-attendance figures reached record levels in 2001 (MEXT, 2005c, 19) and are an ongoing source of concern for the Japanese government. When it comes to enforcing school attendance laws, then, MEXT urges leniency for school non-attendees, recognizing that forcing children back to school is not the answer to the problem. Since 1992, MEXT has allowed attendance at free schools to be counted as regular school attendance – and the students retain their seki (place) at the school in which they are enrolled, even if they no longer attend it (Ishikida, 2005, 4-1-2). Children with a seki receive free school textbooks and can easily return to the school where they are enrolled at any time. Maintaining a seki also means that the children will end up with school records detailing that they have completed compulsory education, which has long been a standard requirement for higher education and many jobs, although recently it has become easier to proceed without this paperwork (see below).

Although it now sanctions the existence of free schools, MEXT has made no public pronouncements about homeschooling or church schools. So far, children who ‘drop out’ of compulsory education and turn to these options are generally treated in the same way as children in free schools.

Families choosing to ‘opt out’ of compulsory education benefit to some extent from the leniency created by the ‘drop out’ issue, but the basic legal status of a parent’s right to choose alternative schooling remains unclear. As with those attending free schools, almost all Japanese students in the ‘opt out’ category who are homeschooled or attend church schools are asked to keep a seki at the school in which they have been automatically enrolled. This means that the responsibility for the child’s education remains with the school, and so some schools ask children to submit reports of their studies to the school, or prove that they are enrolled in an umbrella organization. The principal of Church School B indicated that even though all his students live in the same area, they are all treated in different ways by the schools in which they are enrolled. This is representative of the picture nationwide – homeschoolers and church school students are treated on a ‘case by case’ basis by schools and education boards.

Is ‘Opting Out’ Legal?

Arguments about the legality of alternative education, and particularly about whether Japanese laws allow parents to educate their children outside of the compulsory system, have rested mainly on the interpretation of the words ‘ordinary education’ in Article 26 of the Constitution and the words ‘general education’ in Article 4 of the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education. (The equivalent article (Article 5) in the new Fundamental Law of Education retains the same wording for ‘general education’).

Homeschool advocates such as Ichihara (2002) and Tada (2006), who is a lawyer writing for Japan’s first and best-known free school, Tokyo Shure, claim that the School Education Law which enforces compulsory education is not perfectly faithful to the Constitution. They point out that the Constitution does not equate ‘ordinary education’ (Article 26), which all children have the right to receive, with ‘school education’: the Constitution neither specifies what ‘ordinary education’ is, nor states how or where it is to take place. Because of this, it can be argued that alternative education fulfils the legal requirements for a child’s education. Ichihara further argues that the allied forces, who oversaw the writing of the present constitution, would never have sanctioned an article which would give the government authority to force children to attend schools where the curriculum was designed under government censorship: she points out that such a scenario would open up possibilities of brainwashing students, and be little different from the educational situation just prior to the war.

An article on ‘Homeschoolnet Renkon’ (2004) agrees with the views of Ichihara (2000) and Tada (2006) that the Constitution does not proscribe home education: the writer also argues that Article 26 of the Constitution in fact guarantees the right of a child to receive education, but that the high number of young people who are not attending school are proof that the implementation of compulsory school attendance in effect violates this right. Tada also refers to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that ‘the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’ (Article 3:1). Tada interprets this to mean that parent and child have the legal right to agree together to pursue home education. Kugai (2006, A7), who produces the ‘Homeschool Himeji’ website and newsletters, differs from those above by claiming that the School Education Law means that parents or guardians are legally bound to see that their children attend school, ‘but there is no provision of the law directed at children themselves, stating that children must attend a school to get an education… if a child does not fit in with a school or if a child does not like attending school, other ways of learning outside of school can be done. So, homeschooling is DEFINITELY NOT illegal in Japan’.

Preparations for a Legal Battle

Despite the legal posturing described above, so far, no families choosing alternative education have been taken to court for their decision, and so nobody involved in alternative education at the grassroots level is suggesting making a legal stand for their rights. Should a legal battle ever become necessary, however, one group is positioning itself to take it on. This is the Japanese branch of the American ‘Home School Legal Defence Association’ (HSLDA). HSLDA was founded in 1983 and was instrumental in establishing homeschooling rights in the United States, where it now employs a full-time staff of more than fifty people (Stevens, 2001, 178). The Japanese branch was founded in 2004, and its legal counsel is the prominent Japanese lawyer Sasaki Matsuo. The American branch of HSLDA stands ready to use its considerable legal clout to back up its ‘little brother in Japan’ if necessary (Church and Home Educators’ Association, 2006b).

The Second Challenge: Social Stigma and Socialization

‘The nail that sticks out is hammered home’, says the oft-quoted Japanese proverb, referring to the fact that it is not easy to be ‘different’ in Japanese society. So with school enrolment figures of over 99.9% (MEXT, 2005b), what happens to families who ‘drop’ or ‘opt’ out of the compulsory education system?

At the Church and Home Educators’ conference I attended (2006), there was much informal talk about how church schools and homeschooling families are perceived. One woman said that during her first three years of homeschooling her children, she dared not take her children to the park during school hours, for fear of facing people who might disapprove of her choices: everyone listening nodded in understanding.

A homeschooling father writes of what he calls ‘MUST-GO-TO-SCHOOL-SYNDROME’, and says that ‘dropping out from schooling seems that something like dropping out from Japanese Society itself [sic]’ (Yoshii, 2007), citing this as one of the big issues his family faced when they made their decision to opt out of compulsory education.

The Pastor of Church School C, featured in Chapter Five, said that he felt murahachibu, literally ‘thrown out of the village on all eight counts’ – completely socially ostracized – because of choosing to start a school within his church. Children in this school also said that they disliked being perceived as school drop-outs, when in fact they had actively chosen to go to church school – they felt that society at large has no concept at all of people ‘opting out’ of the system.

In her studies of school refusers, Yoneyama (2000, 81) uses strong language to describe the stigma they face: ‘…not attending school is regarded not only as “abnormal”, “wrong” and “shameful”, but directly challenges two of the most fundamental systems of contemporary Japan: the “school faith” and the ideology of Japaneseness’.

In a society so highly focused on education, it is unsurprising that those choosing alternative education feel themselves to be misunderstood. Internet discussion boards focus not only on how to get round school officials in order to remove children from the compulsory system, but also how to convince spouses and in-laws of the wisdom of such decisions. To even consider alternative education in Japan is to ‘think outside the box’. And reports from other countries also offer little encouragement about a rapid change in public awareness or support. Rothermel (2000, 5) studied 1000 home-educating families in the UK over a three-year period, and says that there ‘the most cited “problem” with home-education was “other people’s opinions”’. Stevens (2001, 180), who undertook a nine-year-long study of homeschooling in the United States, reports that when he asked a group of homeschooled children what they would like to see addressed in a book about homeschooling that wasn’t covered in the national media, the general consensus answer was summed up by one voice which said, ‘“tell them we’re not socially retarded”’. This is despite the fact that there are now over a million homeschooled children in the United States (Princiotta and Bielick, 2006, iii).

Social stigma or misunderstanding, then, is a fact that those involved in alternative education have to either choose to put up with, or work to change. It may be uncomfortable to live with, but it is by no means an insurmountable hurdle.

Homeschooling critics often raise questions about ‘socialization’: does homeschooling isolate children from the real world? The same can be asked of church schools, and this is dealt with in greater detail in Chapter Five. One homeschooling parent is purported to have answered, ‘don’t worry, we get together with other homeschoolers twice a week so he can learn how to spit on them and treat them disrespectfully’! Another says, ‘If I were to design an environment to enhance my children’s ability to function socially, I would never propose anything resembling school!’ (quoted in Dobson, 2002, 84). I will never forget my first encounter with homeschooled children in Japan: I was amazed at their ability to communicate naturally with people of all ages – just spending a short time in their company, without even discussing homeschooling, quickly convinced me that it has great merits in the area of socialization. The family setting which is at the heart of homeschooling offers daily interaction with people of different ages; but homeschooled children also have plenty of time and opportunity to meet people from other walks of life, and most participate in a range of local sports clubs and activities, as well as in homeschooling networks. Spending most of one’s waking hours in the company of peers is actually an unnatural role foisted upon young people by the imposition of institutionalized schooling: yet as products of the school system, most of us have come to see this as normal. The daily interaction between different age groups in all three areas of alternative schooling provides a whole different way of looking at ‘socialization’ and preparation for life in wider society (See Arai, 1999, for in-depth discussion of homeschooled children as ‘good citizens’).

The Third Challenge: Preparing for Higher Education

A third challenge faced by those ‘dropping out’ or ‘opting out’ of the compulsory education system is that of the impact of their choice on the child’s longer-term educational and employment prospects. Will there be a place for them in a society famous for its ‘educational credentialism’ (Amano, 1989, 113)? The good news for these children is that it is now possible to enter or re-enter mainstream education at the high school or university level, and obtain qualifications which they may need for their future careers.

High School Entrance Requirements

In recognition of the needs of the rising numbers of school non-attendees, in 1997 MEXT eased restrictions on entrance qualifications for the Lower Secondary School Equivalency Examination (Chū-gaku kentei) (MEXT, 1997). The examination takes place in November each year, and anyone who passes is qualified to apply to a Japanese high school, even if they have not graduated from junior high school. The examination is open to ‘persons who, through unavoidable circumstances, have postponed or been exempted from compulsory education…’ and those who ‘through unavoidable circumstances, have been unable to attend school’, though proof that the circumstances were unavoidable is required. The examination is also open to non-Japanese. The MEXT webpage that deals with this subject starts with a reminder that ‘elementary and lower secondary education is compulsory’, and that parents are required to send their children to school, before detailing the qualifications for taking the examination. Although school ‘drop outs’ or ‘opt outs’ may have to work hard to prove their eligibility to sit this examination, its availability paves a way back into mainstream education at the non-compulsory high school level for those who want it (MEXT, 1999a).

University Entrance Requirements

There is also a University Entrance Qualification Test (Dai-gaku Kentei, or ‘Daiken’) for people who have not graduated from Japanese high school. MEXT information says that ‘successful candidates may sit for the entrance examination of whichever national, public or private university, junior college or professional training college they wish to attend’. In advertising this examination, MEXT specifically mentions that in 1999, when approximately 18,000 applicants took the ‘Daiken’, ‘roughly 80% of the successful candidates were dropouts from upper secondary school’. From August 2000, the examination was also opened up to graduates of international schools, non-Japanese, and ‘people who did not graduate from lower secondary school for whatever reason’ (italics mine) – this last phrase is significant as it means that all students who have been involved in alternative education have the opportunity to apply to enter Japanese universities if they pass the examination. The examination covers a total of eleven or twelve subjects, and these can be taken either all at once or over a number of years (MEXT, 1999b).


As this chapter has demonstrated, alternative education presents particular legal issues which have not yet been clearly addressed at an official level, and which could portend future legal battles. For the time being, however, both ‘opt out’ and ‘drop out’ families are being allowed to pursue alternative education, albeit with some provisos from local schools and education boards. And although non-attendance at state schools carries a certain social stigma, and is likely to do so for some time to come, MEXT recognition of the need for easier access to higher education means that children who have been educated outside of the compulsory system now have the option of proceeding to higher education if they pass the necessary national examinations.

The three issues of legality, social stigma and future educational opportunities present a considerable practical and emotional challenge for the individuals and families involved, but once these issues have been faced, and the decision to pursue alternative education has been made, it is the questions of daily life that take precedence. Children and their families are warmly welcomed into the free schools, homeschooling communities, or church schools, and a new life ‘outside the system’ begins. The following chapters give a deeper insight into the roles of these forms of alternative schooling in Japan, and the experiences of the individuals involved.

NEXT PAGE: Free Schools

1 thought on “Alternative Education in Japan: The context and the challenges”

  1. Very informative. Thank very much for sharing your study. I was able to gain much insights on Alternative education which i could use in my assignments. I am presently studying.

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