Alternative Education in Japan: Homeschooling

What is ‘Homeschooling’ and how many Homeschoolers are there in Japan?

Homeschooling can be defined quite simply as ‘the education of school-aged children at home rather than at a school’ (Lines, 1993, 1, quoted in Lyman, 1998). The term ‘homeschool’ is generally used in the US, whereas the term ‘home education’ is more common in the UK. Both terms are in wide use, in their katakana versions, in Japan, although some groups express a preference for one term over the other (Tokyo Shure, 1996, 4, 5). The literal Japanese translation of the words ‘home education’ is katei kyōiku, which has long been in use in Japan but has a different meaning to the English language term: the Japanese term refers to the parental role in a child’s upbringing, particularly in disciplining the child and teaching manners – a role which is seen as being complementary to and inextricably linked with other areas of education which take place in school (Tokyo Shure, 1996, 4, 5: see also Fundamental Law of Education, 1947, Article 7 and 2006, Article 10). In the absence of a suitable Japanese term to describe homeschooling, the English terminology has been adopted as the best way to describe modern homeschooling in Japan.

Beyond the common trait of educating their children at home, homeschoolers are a far from homogenous group. Some families use MEXT text books and follow the standard MEXT-approved curriculum at home; others study under the supervision of a correspondence or umbrella school, or make up their own curriculum; and some families choose to ‘unschool’, letting children explore their own interests rather than expecting them to study a certain number of hours of each prescribed subject per week. Kubo’s book contains examples from nine homeschooling families about how they spend their days (Kubo, 2001, 141-143), and shows the variety of activities homeschoolers engage in.

MEXT does not officially recognize homeschooling as a viable form of education and so it is not surprising that it does not keep a record of homeschooling numbers. The only figures available are tentative ones provided by the grassroots groups involved in homeschooling, which estimate that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 children in Japan are currently being schooled at home (Kubo, 2001, 138: Lee, 2002; Kambayashi, 2004). These groups have a vested interest in knowing exact figures, but their diversity also means that it is difficult for any one group to have a clear overview of the homeschooling scene in the whole of Japan.

This lack of statistics is not peculiar to Japan – even in the US, where the modern homeschooling movement has a thirty year history, the government has only recently begun to collate statistics (Baumann, 2002, 1; Messer, 2005, 1). It does this by including questions about homeschooling in household surveys, which have enabled the National Center for Education Studies to provide detailed statistical analysis reports on homeschooling in 1999 and 2003: the next is scheduled for 2007 (Lines, 1999, 6). In contrast to the decentralised educational system of the US, the highly centralised nature of Japan’s education system – where every child is automatically registered and accounted for – would make collecting accurate statistics on homeschooling and other forms of alternative education a relatively simple task if done at an official level.

Why now? Three factors Causing a Growing Interest in Homeschooling

‘Who were the first homeschoolers?’

‘Adam and Eve!’

The joke reminds us that the concept of organized school for all children is in fact a very recent invention – in Japan, the provision of basic schooling for all children only became a reality in the Meiji era (Kubo, 2001, 56). Since then, however, the institutionalized schooling for all Japanese children provided by the compulsory education system has quickly been accepted as the norm, meaning that until very recently, homeschooling in Japan remained the province of foreigners, and particularly foreign missionaries (Hui, 2000; Peterson, 1997, 19). Why then, have some Japanese families turned to homeschooling in the past fifteen years? Three factors can be seen to have influenced this trend.

Problems in the Compulsory Education System are Part of the Reason

The timing of the growth of interest in homeschooling in Japan parallels that of the sudden increase in the number of free schools described in the previous chapter. It is therefore to be expected that the problems in the education system that triggered an increase in free schools are also behind the growth in homeschooling. This is true to some extent, but whereas free schools were seen to exist in response to the needs of ‘drop out’ students, some homeschoolers can be seen to fall clearly into the ‘opt out’ category. So although school non-attendance directly propels many families into homeschooling, and problems in the compulsory system may be behind the decision of others to ‘opt out’, there are also further factors involved, and this is demonstrated in the rest of this chapter.

The US Homeschool Movement Provides Inspiration and Encouragement

In 2003 there were over a million homeschooled children in the US, representing 2.2% of the student population (Princiotta and Bielick, 2006, iii), and the influence of the US homeschool movement is discernable in Japan.

Books by educators such as John Holt (1964), Ivan Illich (1971), Raymond Moore (1981), and John Taylor Gatto (1992), all of whom were instrumental in the development of the US homeschooling movement, are available in Japanese. More recent books such as those by Willis and Hodson (1999) and Dobson (2000), which deal with the practicalities of homeschooling, have also been translated. It is significant that the rhetoric and outlook of all these educators is very definitely ‘opt out’.

Several key figures within the Japanese movement trace their involvement back to influence from the US movement. These include Kubo (2001), who learned about homeschooling while a student in the US, and has published a book about homeschooling; Inaba, head of Japan’s Church and Home Educators’ Association, who lives and works in the US; and Yoshii (2007), head of the Association of Homeschoolers in Christ, who was introduced to the idea of homeschooling by foreign missionaries in Japan.

The American homeschooling movement also provides seasoned speakers for homeschool conferences in Japan: Pat Montgomery, the founder of Clonlara School (the famous US alternative school and home educators’ programme) has spoken at Tokyo Shure (Kubo, 2001, 23); the businessmen who founded Atmark Inter-High, which provides Japanese homeschool curricula for the high school level, visited  Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in the US as they launched their project (Klicka, 2001, 3,4); and Christopher Klicka, the Senior Counsel for HSLDA since 1985, who has fought many homeschooling legal battles in the US, was invited to the launch of the Homeschool Support Association (HoSA) in 2000, resulting in wide coverage from the Japanese media.

US homeschoolers provide encouragement and inspiration to Japan’s homeschool pioneers, but it should be remembered that it was the Japanese homeschoolers who sought their help in the first place, and it is the Japanese who drive the movement forward. The increasing number of books about homeschooling which are authored by Japanese writers indicates that the Japanese movement is now growing in its own right. (A list of these books can be viewed on the HoSA website.)

A Growth in Internet Use Enabled Homeschoolers to Network and Equip Themselves

A breakthrough in public awareness of homeschooling came in May 1995, when NHK produced a series of television programmes about ‘Children who Do Not Go To School’ (Tokyo Shure, 1996, 14). The well-known Free School Tokyo Shure had launched its home education network the previous year, and published its first book about homeschooling in Japan in 1996 (Tokyo Shure, 1996). This growing public interest coincided with the growth of internet use in the late 1990s, and it was around the year 2000 that several of the web-based networks referred to below were formed. These provided a desperately needed contact and information point for geographically scattered homeschoolers and would-be homeschoolers, and enabled the growth of the movement into what it is today. The Internet has also, of course, greatly broadened the range of information and study resources available to ordinary citizens, meaning that studying at home is much more viable than it was fifteen years ago: the programme provided for Japanese homeschoolers by the US alternative school Clonlara is one example of an umbrella school catering to their needs.

What Needs is Homeschooling Meeting that the Compulsory Education System does not Meet?

The previous section looked at socio-historic factors behind the growth of homeschooling: this section examines the motivations and actions of the individual families who homeschool, in order to identify what needs homeschooling meets for them. The reason for the initial decision to homeschool – and the categorization of it as ‘drop out’ or ‘opt out’ – is important because it sheds light on specific needs which may not be met by the compulsory education system. In her book about homeschooling, Kubo (2001, 138-140) lists ten reasons for starting to homeschool expressed by people she knows: the HoSA website also contains a list of twenty three reasons expressed by its members. Both sources present their lists simply to illustrate that there are many reasons to homeschool, but unfortunately they provide no record of what percentage of families chose each reason: in fact, no statistical surveys have yet been carried out in this area in Japan. The lists are valuable expressions, however, of the motivations of Japanese homeschoolers. In the following table I have sorted the lists provided by Kubo and HoSA into the two categories of ‘drop out’ and ‘opt out’ reasons, and also provided a further breakdown within the ‘opt out’ category.



‘Drop Out’ Reasons

My child is bullied at school and does not want to go to school.

My child is a ‘school refuser’, but dislikes the label, so we are homeschooling.

From the opening ceremony onwards, my child has never been happy at school.

My child cannot get used to an institutionalized lifestyle.

Other siblings dropped out of school, so we decided to home educate.

My child went to school, but said he no longer wanted to go.

‘Opt Out’ Reasons

a. Parental Concern about the Compulsory Education System

Because of various things I saw in my child while he was in kindergarten, I thought he would never fit in at school.

I have doubts and uncertainties about the current school system and cannot entrust my child to the school. When I did send my child to school, there were a lot of things I could not agree with.

b. ‘Just Want to Do It’

I read a book about homeschooling and thought ‘this is it!’

I love my child and want to raise him myself and watch him develop.

As a parent, I want to pass on the things I have learned, and my wisdom, to my child.

I want my child’s learning to be experience-centred.

I chose a home birth for my child. I think the same way about education.

I’m interested in Steiner methods and want to try them for myself.

An acquaintance homeschools and it looks like fun, so we decided to do it.

There are TV programmes for homeschooling, so we realized it is not necessary to attend school.

I think that parents have the responsibility for their children’s education.

I love my child and want to spend time alone with him.

I wanted to bring my child up in the great outdoors. Even though we had to move house to enable us to do this, we wanted to homeschool.

When I found out about this amazing type of education called homeschooling, I thought I would really like to give it a go.

c. Child’s Choice

Before my child started elementary school, I asked whether he would prefer to stay at home or go to school, and he chose home.

d. Job/ Family Mobility Issues

Because of involvement in sports training and events, we want to decide for ourselves when and where to study.

Because of the demands of our child’s work (as an actor or singer), or the demands of her father’s job, we want to be free to decide when and where to study.

We move house a lot, and homeschooling provides the most stable form of education for our child.

We live so far from school that traveling to school presents a problem.

e. Special Needs

My child has a disability and education in a large group setting is not suitable for him.

My child has exceptional learning abilities and needs a special learning environment to keep him motivated and interested.

Our child has problems relating to other people, and so she is best educated in a small group setting.

My child has allergies, and the school building and school meals present problems for him/her.

Our child is sick and would like to study at school, but is unable to do so.

His body is weak, and he suffers from ‘sick building syndrome’ and allergies: he cannot eat school lunches and is unable to attend school for physical reasons.

My child has special needs and needs special care, and I cannot hope to see his educational needs met in the current school system.

f. Religious Issues

We need to teach our child in a particular way in accordance with the beliefs of our religion.

Translated and compiled from lists of reasons published by:

Homeschool Support Association (2006), and Kubo (2001, pp.138-140)

NEXT PAGE: The need for Alternative Education

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