Alternative Education in Japan: The need for it

The Needs of ‘Drop Out’ Homeschoolers

The table above contains only six reasons for homeschooling that fall clearly into the ‘drop out’ category, but it is important to note that these reasons account for the majority of Japanese homeschoolers, and correspond with the reasons for the existence of free schools detailed in the previous chapter. Hui (2000) notes that Japanese families who choose to homeschool often do so as ‘a reactive decision propelled by circumstances such as bullying or school refusal’.  Lee (2002) also refers to homeschool as often being the choice of ‘last resort for children who refuse to attend regular schools because of bullying and fierce academic competition.’ But despite these negative reasons for starting to homeschool, stories about the positive outcomes of homeschooling for ‘drop out’ students abound on websites, in books, and in the media (Lee, 2002; Takahara, 2005; Home Shure, 2006).

Two of the main groups catering specifically to drop out students are Home Shure and ZERO-net. Home Shure is the homeschool branch of Tokyo Shure, which was introduced in the previous chapter: it was founded in 1994, and 1400 families have participated since then. It provides separate monthly magazines for parents and children, as well as advice, support, and regular meetings. It also maintains an informative website, and has produced two books about homeschooling in Japan: the most recent book draws on the experiences accumulated by the group during the first ten years of its existence (Tokyo Shure, 1996 and 2006). ZERO-net was originally a regional homeschooling group called ‘Homeschool Net Himeji’, founded by a mother who has homeschooled her daughter since her third year of elementary school, when she decided she no longer wanted to go to school. This group has been in existence for ten years, and works particularly to encourage ‘drop out’ children. It publishes magazines and reports about school refusal, homeschooling and ‘unschooling’ (a homeschooling method which uses no set curriculum: the child chooses when and how to learn), and its website sports slogans such as ‘school refusal is not a problem, but the first step on the way to solving a problem’.

It was noted that what free schools offer can best be described as a ‘freedom from’ the problems experienced by some children in the compulsory system. The original reasons for choosing homeschooling expressed by the ‘drop out’ homeschoolers express this same need for ‘freedom from’ the pressures of the compulsory education system, but once the decision to homeschool has been made, they, along with the ‘opt out’ homeschoolers, can concentrate on the ‘freedom to…’. In fact the rhetoric of the Japanese homeschooling movement, like that of its US counterpart, concentrates largely on the positive things that homeschooling has to offer, (the ‘freedom to…’), rather than dwelling on any perceived negatives in the compulsory education system. The distinction between the ‘drop out’ and ‘opt out’ motivation fades, then, to some extent as both groups ‘get on with the job’ and share concerns about methods, resources, and networking. For this reason, most homeschooling networks cater to both ‘drop out’ and ‘opt out’ homeschoolers.

A family choosing to homeschool enjoys the freedom to choose its own educational path and tailor it uniquely to the needs of each child. Homeschooling offers a high teacher-student ratio, often of 1:1, and as subjects can be covered at the ideal pace for the child, weaknesses can be worked on and strengths can be exploited: the whole set-up differs greatly from the uniformity found in the compulsory system across Japan, where children of a particular grade across the nation are all studying roughly the same thing at the same time, and little allowance is made for fast or slow learners.

The Needs of ‘Opt Out’ Homeschoolers

Although ‘drop out’ homeschoolers are almost certainly in the majority in Japan, some families actively choose to homeschool without their children ever experiencing the compulsory school system, or choose to withdraw their children from it without them having got to the stage of dropping out. As demonstrated above, reasons given by these families for ‘opting out’ of compulsory education vary greatly, but the majority of reasons fall into the ‘just want to do it’ category: the parents feel that homeschooling is a viable form of education, and believe that the home and family environment has much to offer, and so choose this option. Whether or not they have realized it, their decision is made on the assumption that parents have the ultimate responsibility for their children’s education, and the freedom to choose how to educate them. The legal issues surrounding this belief remain untested in Japan, as was discussed in Chapter Two.

Whereas ‘drop out’ homeschooling can be seen to be precipitated by children’s needs, ‘opt out’ homeschooling can be said to cater to parental needs, although presumably the parents involved believe that their decision to homeschool is the best way to meet their children’s educational needs. Homeschooling parents are not content to entrust their children’s education to the schools. Bauman (2002, 15), in his study of homeschooling in the US, also concluded that parental needs were a driving force in homeschooling: ‘unless the needs of parents are met in different ways, it is likely that home schooling will have a large impact on the school as an institution in coming decades’.

As well as the homeschoolers whose motivation was characterized as ‘just want to do it’ in the table above, three further distinct groups can be identified within the ‘opt out’ category of homeschoolers – and their existence highlights some further needs which the compulsory education system does not meet. These are the families of children with ‘special needs’, dual-national or non-Japanese families, and Japanese Christians.

‘Special Needs’ Homeschoolers

The table of reasons for starting to homeschool contains several references to ‘special needs’ which parents felt were not adequately met within the compulsory system. MEXT classifies children needing ‘special education’ under the headings of intellectual impairment, physical disability, chronic illness, visual impairment, hearing impaired, speech impediment, and emotional and behavioural difficulties, and current educational policy is to include children with special needs in mainstream education as much as possible.

Sato and Nakata (2005, 8-12,21) analysed data to provide an in-depth report on provisions for these children within the compulsory education system, and found that in May 2002 there were a total of 207,706 children receiving ‘special education’ in Japan. Of these, 94,171 were in special schools; 81,827 in special education classes within mainstream schools; and 31,767 in special needs support classes . Interestingly, the data also showed that the average full-time teacher:student ratio for children from kindergarten age to high school in special schools was 1:1.57, and for special education classes at the compulsory education levels within mainstream schools it was 1:2.61, (no ratio was given for special needs support classes). These figures differ very little, of course, from the teacher:student ratio for homeschooling (which can be just 1:1, but varies, for example, if a family homeschools more than one child, or if a second parent or teacher helps out with some subjects). The special education system also provides itinerant teachers to teach some special needs children at home, although the trend is now away from this option: in 2002, this service was provided for 2,280 children at the compulsory education level.

While the inclusive policy is admirable in many ways, life for children with special needs who attend ordinary Japanese schools can be difficult. Examples from the small country town where I live include a girl in the local elementary school who has to shuffle up and down small flights of steps on her bottom while other students carry her wheelchair, as there are no ramps provided. When it rains, her clothes get very wet. A mother of a child with Asperger’s syndrome cries because her son is regularly bullied at school: although the teachers know of his disability, the other children have not been told about it, and they find him ‘strange’ and treat him unkindly. His condition is not severe enough to gain him a place in a special school, and even if it was, his mother is not sure that she would want that for him. She says she would love to homeschool or send her son to a nearby church school, where she feels her son could grow up in a more encouraging environment, but her husband will not agree to her ideas.

The parents of special needs children have to weigh up their individual circumstances and evaluate whether what the system offers their child adequately meets their needs. Some will choose to keep their children in the system, where many will have a positive experience – struggles such as those of the children mentioned above are not insurmountable obstacles, and facing them can be an important part of a child’s development. Other families believe that homeschooling is the best way to provide a stable, supportive, and academically appropriate educational environment for their child. The Internet has enabled wide communication amongst individuals and families with special needs in recent years, meaning that homeschooling need not be an isolating experience. The director of the homeschooling group HoSA, Narita Shigeru, holds a PhD in Education, and specializes in special needs education, and HoSA has a specific support group for Japanese special needs homeschoolers.

Dual-National Homeschoolers

Dual-national homeschoolers (i.e. those possessing both Japanese and one or more other nationalities, usually because they have one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent) received no mention in the table above, and the literature and websites of Japanese homeschooling groups seem to completely ignore their presence. Wiltshire and Huey (2000, 342), however, include ‘bicultural families who don’t feel comfortable in either the Japanese or a Western school system’ among their list of families choosing to homeschool in Japan. This description also applies to a number of ‘returnee’ families (Japanese families who have lived abroad and may have had their children enrolled in local schools abroad (MEXT, 2005c, 28,29)), who have found the return to the Japanese educational system a difficult adjustment and have chosen to homeschool. There are now more than two million non-Japanese people resident in Japan, and the number of international marriages has increased more than six fold in the past thirty years. In the year 2000, 4.5 percent of marriages in Japan were ‘international’, and while the national average fertility rate was 1.36, the rate for couples in which one parent was non-Japanese was 2.9 – meaning that increasing numbers of dual-national children are of the compulsory education age  (Kamiya, 2007; Curtin, 2002, 1, 2; Statistics Bureau, 2005, 2:4).

Although only a small minority of non-Japanese residents are native English speakers (Ministry of Justice, 2005), it is this group which is highly represented amongst homeschoolers, and some families have formed English-language networks to exchange information about their specific educational needs: ‘Education in Japan’ is the most established of these. Its highly informative website details the wide range of educational options available, and it has a lively, members-only discussion board for anyone wanting to discuss Japanese educational issues or arrange social gatherings. Its members practice a range of ‘do it yourself’ educational options: some homeschool, while others ‘afterschool’ i.e. teach their children English (or another second language) at home after they have attended Japanese school each day, or are able to make special arrangements with local schools such as having their children enrolled, but taking them out for a part of each week to teach them in English at home (not all schools are amenable to this).

The needs expressed by parents of dual-national families are varied and complex, and include parental inability to understand the demands of Japanese school (on linguistic and/or cultural levels); a desire to bring children up bilingually; an intention to return to schooling in another country; and the necessity of preparing children for higher education outside of Japan. A common theme is the difficulty of achieving or maintaining bilingualism or biculturalism for children within the Japanese school system, even when a child has one non-Japanese parent.

So what is MEXT doing to meet these needs? The short answer is – ‘nothing’. As Okano and Tsuchiya (1999, xiii) point out, ‘post-war schooling has maintained monocultural orientations (as distinct from multiculturalism), which assumes all students are from a single ethnic group (Japanese), and means that state-sponsored schools cater almost exclusively for their needs’. Dual-national children resident in Japan are automatically enrolled in the compulsory education system, where they are treated as pure Japanese. The marginal note in the School Education Law which permits them to ‘opt out’ at the education board’s discretion (mentioned in Chapter Two) is not officially publicized and is rarely implemented.  MEXT publishes no official records of their numbers, their bicultural identity is ignored rather than recognized or encouraged, and no provision is made for them to maintain any language other than Japanese (Noguchi and Fotos (eds.) (2001), treat this subject in greater depth). While most have the linguistic and cultural background to survive, the situation is not ideal: the school system’s assumption that dual-national children should assimilate asks them to ignore half their identity.

The existence and rhetoric of dual-national homeschoolers demonstrates that the compulsory education system does not fully meet their educational needs, particularly in the areas of pursuing bilingualism or maintaining a separate cultural identity, and many English-speaking dual-national families are proving that homeschooling or partial homeschooling can offer a more culturally and linguistically balanced education for their children. Their ‘opting out’ of the system is understandable, but if more measures were taken to enable their healthy inclusion (with deference to their bicultural and bilingual identities), this would make for a more understanding and integrated society in the future.

NEXT PAGE: Christian Homeschoolers

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