Alternative Education in Japan: Free schools

What is a ‘Free School’ and how many Free Schools are there in Japan?

According to Okuchi, the founder of the famous Free School Tokyo Shure, the term ‘free school’ was originally used for ‘a private place of learning where children took the initiative’ (Shimoyachi, 2002b). In the current educational climate, however, school non-attendance has become a major issue, and the term ‘free school’ is almost always used (in its katakana version) to refer to alternative educational institutions catering specifically to children who have dropped out of mainstream or compulsory education (Akimoto, 2002; Gordenker, 2002; Matsuzawa, 2006). In other words, although the older definition still largely applies, it is now inextricably linked with the concept that such schools are for ‘drop out’ students.

Free schools typically offer a much less structured learning environment than state schools, and many of them operate on the basis of letting the children decide what to do and when to do it. Lists of free schools often also contain details of ‘free spaces’, and the distinction between the two is often blurred: some free spaces are open for only a few hours a week, and most do not offer the same level of support and counselling as free schools, but see their main function as providing a place for children who are not attending school to go to relax and meet other people, rather than remaining isolated in their homes.

Although MEXT has allowed attendance at free schools to count as proper school attendance since 1992 (Ishikida, 2005, 4-1-2), it neither provides financial assistance to free schools, nor requires them to register in any way. And despite several attempts to set up comprehensive lists of free schools, (examples include the websites of Free School Net, Free School Network and Japan Free School Association), accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, and are in fact conspicuous by their absence in the majority of writing about free schools. Shimoyachi (2002b) reports that there were thought to be ‘almost a thousand’ free schools in 2002, although Lloyd (2005) mentions only ‘over two hundred and forty’ registering with the newly-formed Japan Free School Association in 2001. The difficulty in differentiating between ‘free spaces’ and ‘free schools’ adds to the confusion, and the fragile financial status of many free schools – which require payments from the children who attend, in order to keep themselves going – causes some schools to open and close very quickly, making it hard to maintain accurate and up to date directories.

The idea of ‘free schools’ is not a recent one: similar schools were to be found in Japan as early as the 1920s, when the New Education movement was active (White, 1987, 167). Okano and Tsuchiya (1999, 23) point out that ‘deploring uniformity, teacher-centred schooling and the emphasis on the mechanical transfer of prescribed knowledge in the existing schooling, the proponents of New Education believed that children were innately good; and urged schools to respect children’s individual characters, initiative and creative capacities’. Two particularly well-known precursors to today’s free schools which were part of the movement are Jiyu Gakuen, founded in 1921 and still in existence as a private school today, and Tomoe Gakuen, which existed only from 1937 to 1945, when it was destroyed by an air raid. Tomoe Gakuen was made famous by the book ‘Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window’ written by the well-loved TV star and UNICEF ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who is the Totto-chan of the story (Kuroyanagi, 1996). The book broke publishing records with sales of more than five million copies: the idyllic, student-led life it depicts presents a contrast to the regulated life of modern state schools and shows that an alternative is possible (Chira, 1982; White, 1987, 168).

Why do Free Schools Exist?

A Response to the Phenomenon of School Non-Attendance

If schools such as Jiyu Gakuen were already in existence, what caused a sudden proliferation of free schools across Japan in the 1990s? The simple answer is the phenomenon of school non-attendance. Whereas the early free schools were founded with lofty educational ideas and ‘opt out’ ideals, (on a par with the famous ‘alternative schools’ Summerhill School in the UK and Sudbury Valley School in the US), the modern free schools came into existence in direct response to the needs of children who were dropping out of the compulsory education system. Tokyo Shure, which was founded in 1985 and currently has more than two hundred students, is now widely recognised as the first of the modern wave of free schools, and is typical of all that have followed it in that it was started by the mother of a child who had dropped out of school, with the specific goal of helping ‘drop out’ students.

School non-attendance figures for children of compulsory education age more than doubled over the ten year period from 1991 to 2001 (from 66,817 to 138,722), and although they have fallen since the 2001 peak, which represented 1.22% of the student population, the figures remained high at 123,317 in 2004, equivalent to 1.13% of the student population (calculated from figures in MEXT, 2005c, 65,66: MEXT, 2005d). It is important to remember that these figures are misleading: as detailed in Chapter Two, they represent only part of the full picture because schools may count children’s attendance at guidance classrooms, free schools, church schools or homeschool as attendance at the school in which they have their registered place, and so avoid including them in the ‘non-attendance’ figures (Anon, 2006; Yoneyama, 2000, 79).

Problems in the compulsory education system have been the focus of ongoing public concern since the early 1980s, and have contributed to the numbers of school non-attendees. Research in this area is copious, and readily available in English. Schoolland’s ‘Shogun’s Ghost: The Dark Side of Japanese Education’ gives a useful introduction to the topic, dealing with issues including corporal punishment, exam pressure and bullying, as well as school non-attendance (Schoolland, 1990). Hood (2001, 149-167), Nemoto (1999, 76-81; 128-151) and Okano and Tsuchiya (1999, 194-210) provide further insight with research based on more recent data.

MEXT’s Responses have Proved Inadequate

The school problems mentioned above were the catalyst for the education reforms initiated by Nakasone in the 1980s, which included the introduction of the five day school week, the idea of a less pressured education, and a new focus on the individual (Hood, 2001, 124-148). Hood (2001) and Schoppa (1993) provide in-depth studies of the reforms.

On top of these far reaching reforms, MEXT is active in its specific attempts to support students who have dropped out of school. Professional school counsellors were introduced in 1995 to advise students, parents and teachers – in 2005 there were more than 6,900 nationwide, for a total of over 33,000 schools, and in 2006 the Education Minister requested an increase in their numbers for 2007 (MEXT, 2005c, 19, 64; Kyodo, 2006b).

Local education boards also provide ‘guidance’ or ‘adjustment’ classrooms where school drop outs can meet, study and keep to a timetable of sorts. The classrooms are usually in community centres or city halls, and are staffed mainly by retired teachers. Their structure is often not much different from school: a school drop out in Nagasaki complained ‘there was a teacher who lectured and rows of desks… it was too much like regular school and I hated it’ (Hempel, 2002).

In 1992, MEXT took one significant step which stands in contrast to all its other measures – it decided to count attendance at free schools as regular school attendance (Ishikida, 2005, 4-1-2; Shimoyachi, 2002b). This was a tacit acknowledgment that MEXT needs help from outside the system, although it stopped short of any active encouragement or support of free schools.

Strict school district rules were relaxed in 1997, allowing children to move schools because of bullying or other problems, although in 2006 it was discovered that 14.7 percent of education boards had failed to make this revision known to parents, saying that they ‘do not expect situations in which such measures will be needed and have no plan to make anything public’ (Ninomiya, 2004, 35; Yomiuri Shimbun 2007).

E-mail counselling and communication systems have also been set up, enabling children to express their thoughts and feelings without having to meet face to face with teachers or counsellors (Akahori, Fujitani et al, 2001; IBM, 2005), and a nationwide 24-hour bullying hotline was launched in 2007 (Mainichi Shimbun, 2007).

What all these MEXT efforts amount to, however, is pressure on a child to stay within or return to the compulsory education system. Other than the lenient attitude towards attendance at free school, MEXT’s measures do not take into account the fact that state schools may not be the best place for all children, or that school drop outs may not want to return to the compulsory system.

Despite these continued efforts to seek answers only from within the system, an interesting shift can be traced in MEXT’s attitude toward school non-attendance over the past few decades. The Ministry of Education has charted statistics for school refusal since 1966, and its original definition referred to students absent from school for fifty or more days because of ‘school phobia’ (gakkō kyōfusyō). This term was largely replaced by the term ‘school refusal’ (tōkōkyohi) in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, the official definition was changed to an absence of thirty or more days, and in 1997 the more neutral term ‘school non-attendance’(futōkō) was introduced, although ‘school refusal’ is also still widely used (Ishikida, 4-1-1, 2005; Yoneyama, 2000, 93). The gradual change in the vocabulary used to describe the phenomenon is indicative of an increasing understanding of it, and a growing recognition that it is not always the individual child who is at fault. MEXT’s recent definition of school refusal in fact admits that there can be a wide variety of causes: ‘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’ (MEXT, 2005d).

The continuing high numbers of children dropping out of school indicate that despite much research and the implementation of many measures to deal with the problems, little real headway has been made. It is reasonable to conclude that although the efforts made within the system to help school drop outs may be containing the problem, they are not dealing effectively with its roots. And it logically follows that an effective solution to the ‘problem’ – and to the needs of drop out students – may exist only outside the compulsory system, in the realm of alternative education.

A ‘Citizens’ Response’ to School Non-Attendance

Yoneyama (2000, 77, 82), discerns four main ‘responses’ to the issue of school phobia or school refusal. The first response is ‘psychiatric discourse’ – regarding school refusal as mental illness, and prescribing medical intervention; the second, she terms ‘behavioural discourse’, which prescribes discipline and reformatory school; the third, ‘citizens’ discourse’, she describes as regarding school refusal as a ‘normal response of normal students’, and placing the blame for the problem on the schools and not on the students; and the fourth, she calls ‘socio-medical discourse’, where school refusal is seen as being caused by chronic fatigue, for which rest (at home or in hospital) is the main cure.

Free schools, homeschooling and church schools can be regarded as a practical outworking of what Yoneyama terms ‘citizens’ discourse’: losing hope in the schools or the school system, and wanting to provide immediate and tangible help to school drop outs, some members of the public take matters into their own hands and provide alternatives to the system. Free schools are a non-official, grassroots response to school non-attendance – building on Yoneyama’s idea, this could be aptly termed a ‘citizens’ response’.

What needs are Free Schools Meeting that the Compulsory Education System does not Meet?

The issues discussed above were dealt with at the macro level, as overall problems in the compulsory education system, with wide-ranging measures taken to combat them. But at the micro level the problem consists of thousands of individual children who struggle within the system, and then drop out. Free schools stand ready to help them where they can, and it is in the free schools that the voices of individual children can be heard. So what is it that the free schools offer? And what does this reflect about the compulsory education system?

Freedom to Think for Oneself

Many students who drop out of school seem to want the freedom and space to take control of their own lives, rather than to be counselled and cajoled back into the system. Sugimoto (1997, 128) expresses this in terms of a freedom from control: ‘Cases of school refusal are in a sense children’s body language or body messages in response to school attempts to control their bodies’, and Yoneyama (2001) also finds the issue of control to be central to the whole area of school refusal. Yoneyama (2000) emphasizes the importance of providing time and space for children to think things over, arguing that those who drop out of school with a real inability to attend often go through a process which starts with ‘burnout’, and can end with what she terms ‘empowerment’, as they come to terms with what has happened to them and begin to develop their own view of themselves, the school system and society. She finds that many students who have gone through this process hold a perception that ‘something is wrong with Japanese society’, but also determines that the process is an intensely personal one, and that going back to school not to conform, but to realize a dream, is also a possible outcome (Yoneyama, 2000, 91).

‘Free Space Tamariba’ in Kawasaki was founded on the belief that ‘children should have “idle time” free from adults’ expectations, so they can think what they really want to do’. Shimoyachi (2002b) found that ninety percent of Tamariba’s students between 1991 and 1998 eventually returned to the mainstream system, mostly at the high school level. He reports that the founder ‘now believes the high return rate… was purely an individual choice – some may have decided to use the conventional school system to achieve their goals, while others may have just sought out the social life found in many schools’. In other words, the free space provided a ‘time out’ from the compulsory system, where children could think for themselves, and decide whether or not to opt back in to the system.

That Japan’s schools fail to encourage free thinking and individual expression is an oft-voiced complaint, and not just by those who have turned their backs on the system. The introduction to MEXT’s 2005 overview of Japan’s education system admits that: ‘education suited to the personalities and abilities of individual children has often been neglected in favour of the standardization of education and excessive drilling of knowledge brought about by an egalitarianism gone too far… the current education system, including the school system and entrance examinations, is unable to maximise students’ individuality and talent’ (MEXT, 2005c, Introduction).

In contrast to mainstream schools, then, free schools offer students a place to be – or perhaps find – themselves, and to start to take control of their own lives. This theme is summed up in the logo of the Japan Free Schools Association: ‘Be Yourself’. The free schools’ mission is to pick up where the compulsory system has failed: in recognizing that school refusal may actually be a healthy response to a sick system, they affirm and protect a child’s individuality and right to make decisions about his or her own life and education.

Freedom from Bullying

For many children, free schools provide a haven from bullying. A study by Morita indicated that ‘friendship anxiety factor’, which included ‘not getting along with friends’ and ‘being bullied by friends’, was the greatest factor in school refusal (Morita, 1991, 170-172, quoted in Yoneyama, 2001), and several other studies have since supported that result (Okano and Tsuchiya, 1999, 203-205; Ishikida, 2005, 4-1-1).

Takasaki Gakuen in Tokyo is an example of a free school which provides shelter for bullied children. The school grew from three students in 1973 to fifty in 2000, almost all of them victims of bullying: the head claims that they ‘represent the dark side of Japanese education which ignores the weak’ (Kakuchi, 2001).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a spate of school scandals hit news headlines in Japan following investigations into the 1984 murder of a boy by two schoolmates whom he had bullied (Murakami in Shields, 1993, 146-147), and the 1986 suicide of a child who had been bullied at school, with teachers complicit in the bullying (Schoolland, 1990, 95-106). These high-profile cases increased public awareness of problems that already existed in the schools. Despite renewed awareness, and the Ministry of Education beginning to compile and publish figures on school violence (from 1983) and bullying (from 1985), (MEXT, 2005c, 75; Okano and Tsuchiya, 1999, 196), the sad tales continued. Particularly newsworthy were a second wave of eleven more bullying-related suicides occurring over an eighteen month period from 1994 (Okano and Tsuchiya, 1999, 195-6); a grisly murder of a schoolmate committed by a Kobe schoolboy in 1997; and a further wave of bullying-induced suicides taking place in 2006 (Japan Times, 2006). Each wave of bullying brings renewed soul-searching amongst those involved in schooling at all levels, but the problem remains.

Most bullying does not escalate into the life-or-death scenarios described above, and it can be argued that bullying is a fact of life and part of the school experience. But bullying in Japanese schools does make life very unpleasant for a significant number of children. In contrast to state schools, the atmosphere in free schools is not conducive to bullying: the free schools are vocal advocates of a child’s right to be ‘different’ and express his or her individuality, and not to conform to expectations forced upon him or her by peers, school or society.

Freedom from Academic Pressure

A third freedom that free schools offer is freedom from academic pressure. Sugimoto (1997, 111) claims that ‘the ideology of educational credentialism pervades Japanese society and spreads an examination culture across considerable sections of Japan’s schools’. The pressure to which Sugimoto refers can result in parents pushing their children academically, from kindergarten onwards, with a view to them eventually entering the ‘right’ university – it is a pressure which, as Hood (2001, 161) points out, can rob children of their childhood. And although it may have lessened to some extent in the past decade (Hood, 2001, 160-167), this pressure is still very real for many children.

A different kind of academic pressure lies in the very ‘equality’ of the school system, which is often characterized as stressing effort over ability (Shields, 1993, 7; White, 1987, 100). These researchers find this a commendable trait – and one from which they believe other countries should learn – because they see it as the opposite of a Western tendency to ‘condemn’ a child who is perceived to have a lower innate ability to a life of academic low achievement. However, the equation is not a matter of either effort or ability: if both are taken into account, it is obvious that those with a lower innate ability to learn have to expend much greater energy to achieve than those with a high innate ability. In other words, despite a teacher’s best efforts to help a struggling child, keeping up with class-work in the uniform Japanese school system represents a much greater effort – and academic pressure – for some students than for others. The head of Jiyu no Mori Gakuen cited the needs of slow learners as one of the reasons why his school does not test students: ‘under the current system, students are evaluated on the basis of their examination performance. But, how can we say that a child who is slow in learning or who cannot fit into the system is a ‘bad student’ or ‘inferior’ to others?…Our goal is to create a student oriented education which aims at helping students become creative and flexible individuals’ (Schoolland, 1990, 193). Free schools have a valuable role in restoring hope and confidence to children who have not been able to thrive in the compulsory system.

Tokyo Shure is typical of many free schools in that it has no set curriculum: ‘each child decide everything which are concerning to oneself. For instance, becoming a member of Tokyo Shure, when to graduate Tokyo Shure, how many days he/she goes to, when to come to and leave Tokyo Shure, what programme she/he takes. To be free is not to be selfish. Children try to realise own plan. Sometimes, they have to make compromise [sic]’ (Anon, 2006).

Even amongst free schools that offer a more structured curriculum, freedom from academic pressure is an important part of the school’s character. Learnnet Global School in Kobe was founded in 1998 by a former management consultant. While based in Denmark, he had sent his daughter to a school that emphasized individual talents: when he returned to Japan could not find a school with this emphasis, and so started his own. Students follow government curricula for mathematics and reading, but ‘the rest is self-directed field projects like investigating the role of prices in the economy or how a rocket launches, and sharing the findings in class’. Classes are grouped loosely by age, and there are no tests. (Tanikawa, 2003). A similar outlook is a feature of Tokyo’s long-established Jiyu Gakuen, where children can stay in the same school from kindergarten until college, and face no grading and no exam pressure, although some students at the higher levels choose to go to cram schools to prepare themselves for higher education (Schoolland, 1990, 193).

A certain level of academic knowledge is necessary, however, in order to lead a normal life, and the provision of this basic knowledge is one of the main goals of the compulsory education system. Whereas most free schools recognize this and do provide some kind of an alternative education for children with freedom from ongoing or undue academic pressure, it is questionable whether total freedom from academic pressure – where it is interpreted by some free schools as no pressure at all to study even basic subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics – can ever be in a child’s best interests.

A Place to Be

Normal school life takes up the majority of a child’s waking hours: a child who drops out of the system suddenly has a lot of time to fill. Free schools and free spaces offer a ‘place to be’, where a child can interact with other children and adults, and find various activities to keep him or herself occupied. Providing a ‘place to be’ is a simple concept, but an invaluable one, particularly as it helps children to stay involved with other people, rather than completely withdrawing from society. Japan has possibly as many as a million hikikomori (loosely translated as ‘social recluses’), who are defined by the Ministry of Health as individuals who isolate themselves from friends and family in a single room for a period of more than six months – and research shows that the beginnings of an individual’s hikikomori experience can often be traced back to school refusal (Murakami, 2005; Zielenziger, 2006).


Free schools exist as a ‘citizens’ response’ to the social problem of school non-attendance. Yoneyama goes so far as to describe ‘The Committee’, a group formed by Tokyo Shure to stand up for the rights of school non-attendees, as ‘one of the most powerful social movements in contemporary Japan, where children and parents are bound together not so much by ideology, as by the sheer need to survive’ (Yoneyama, 2000, 85). It is this ‘need to survive’ which fuels the modern free schools: at their most basic level, they aim to provide a safe haven for children who have suffered in – and dropped out of – the compulsory education system. MEXT’s extensive efforts to get children to return to the system have not yet dealt with the root of the problem, and in effect, free schools pick up where the system has failed.

It is significant that what is offered by the free schools is more easily expressed as a ‘freedom from…’ than a ‘freedom to…’. Freedom from pressure to conform, freedom from bullying, and freedom from academic pressure are the immediate needs which they meet. That these freedoms are lacking to some extent in the compulsory system, and are contributory factors to school non-attendance, is already widely recognized and testified to by research. Free schools also fufill a basic need for a ‘place to be’, other than on the streets or isolated at home, for children who are not in school.

The ‘be yourself’ rhetoric expounded by the free schools then develops from the freedoms they provide. By providing time and space for children to come to terms with having ‘dropped out’ of school, free schools give them the opportunity to choose an educational path with which they feel comfortable, whether that means staying outside the system, or opting back into it. Some, but not all, free schools are able to offer or recommend academic opportunities and alternative routes to higher education, and this is a field which is developing with time and experience.

NEXT PAGE: Homeschooling

5 thoughts on “Alternative Education in Japan: Free schools”

  1. We are interested to join it, what the procedure. And the fees to be paid here.
    Atul sati, India

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