Alternative Education in Japan: Church schools

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

In their own literature and in informal conversation, those involved in Japan’s recently started church schools generally describe the schools using the katakana version of the English words ‘church school’ [1]. The term describes in a nutshell what the schools are – they have been started by churches and take place in church buildings, and they teach the Christian faith alongside ‘normal’ school subjects. The church pastors usually function as the school principals, and the teachers are members of the congregation. The churches involved are Japanese evangelical protestant churches which regard the church schools as a vital part of their work or ‘ministry’. These are typically small, independent churches or churches that are members of prefecture-wide rather than nation-wide denominations: no new church schools have been started by churches of the United Church of Christ, Anglican or Baptist denominations, which are the three largest Protestant denominations in Japan (World Christian Database, 2005).

Like the free schools, the church schools are not recognized by MEXT and have no formal status as academic institutions. But their shared visions and goals make it easy for them to form groups, and this in turn makes it possible to obtain an accurate picture of how many of them there are. In 2006 there were at least forty church schools in Japan, catering to between four and a hundred students each (CHEA, 2006b).

Although they refer to themselves informally as ‘church schools’, many of the schools use the words ‘International Christian School’ as part of their official school name (ACSI, 2007a). Informal enquiries revealed that they use ‘International’ to differentiate themselves from free schools, (the church schools are adamant that they are not free schools), and because they want to be outward looking, educating children who have a good level of English and are equipped to have a Christian impact on the world. 28 church schools in Japan are members of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), a US based group whose mission is ‘to enable Christian educators and schools worldwide to effectively prepare students for life’ (ACSI, 2007b). Membership allows access to ACSI’s extensive range of services, but these are all in English and very much aimed at the English-speaking international school market: for Japan’s church schools, the main benefit seems to be the use the name of ACSI to lend an air of legitimacy to their existence as ‘International’ Christian schools.

It is important to note that although they almost all use ‘Christian’ in their school names, the modern church schools are not the same as Japan’s long-established, well-known ‘Christian schools’ or ‘mission schools’ such as Yokohama’s Aoyama Gakuin, and Tokyo’s Rikkyō Gakuin and Meiji Gakuin, all of which started out as small schools founded by Protestant Christian missionaries in the late 19th century, and none of which include ‘Christian’ in their school name. Although the academic excellence of these institutions is widely acknowledged today (Seat, 2001), the Christian faith which was an integral part of the lives of their founders, and an important part of their early curricula, is now paid little more than lip-service. The church schools of today are very different from the present forms of these famous ‘Christian schools’, although perhaps very similar to their original forms!

The first of the modern wave of church schools was started in Okinawa, where a Japanese pastor and his wife decided to homeschool their child, who had ‘dropped out’ of elementary school. Over a period of two years, twelve other children joined in, and so in 1997 World Mission Christian School Okinawa was launched (Interview with Kina, 2006). By 2006, the school had over 100 students. It has hosted several church school conferences, and coordinates Japan Christian Schools Association (JCSA), which was founded in 2002 to promote the ‘relationship, cooperation, teaching and development of church schools in Japan’ (Japan Church Schools Association, 2006).

Like the homeschoolers described in the previous chapter, those involved in the church schools are keenly aware that their educational choices are unusual, and they are eager to exchange experiences and ideas with others in similar situations. Whereas the homeschoolers meet mostly in cyberspace, the church school leaders tend to meet face to face in organized gatherings. Conferences such as those provided by CHEA and JCSA, where church school teachers and children can meet each other and participate in shared activities, are a priority, and JCSA also organizes regular training courses for teachers. Some parents of church school children are actively involved in the daily lives of the church schools, but most are not – so the networking that takes place is mostly for pastors, teachers, and the children who attend the church schools.

Why do Church Schools Exist?

Although church schools came into existence against the socio-historical background of problems in the compulsory education system, they nowhere acknowledge their existence as being a response to this. The fact that the majority of their students are ‘opt out’ rather than ‘drop out’ also sets them apart from free schools and homeschooling, and shows that there are other factors involved.

The church schools were relative late-comers to the alternative education scene. By the time the first church school was formed in 1997, the free schools and homeschoolers had already demonstrated that it was possible to practice alternatives to the compulsory education system. Though this was encouraging, it seems that it was the rhetoric of the Christian homeschoolers – and particularly their insistence that Christian parents have a biblical mandate to pass on their faith to their children, and that faith should therefore be foundational to their education – that struck a chord in some church circles, and became the key factor in the formation of many church schools. Like the ‘opt out’ forms of homeschooling, then, church schools can be seen to meet a parental need. Baker (Baker and Freeman, 2005, 14), writing about the UK church school movement, expresses the ‘need’: ‘We were working hard to instill Christian values into them at home. Did we really want those values to be challenged as soon as they stepped into a school? …Would they not be more likely to absorb the values of the community into which we had sent them to be educated?’ The church schools’ own expressions of their goals and vision, examined below, declare their commitment to providing this faith-based education.

The first CHEA convention, attended by 625 people in 2000, initiated the dissemination of both the theological and practical ideas behind Christian alternative education in Japan (CHEA, 2006a, 2). CHEA’s leader, Inaba, actually lives and works in the US: many of the ideas, encouragements and resources introduced at the conference came from the well-established US Christian homeschool movement. The principal of Church School B had worked as a teacher within the compulsory education system, and had a long-held desire to provide a Christian alternative – he said that what he heard at this first CHEA conference made him realize it could be done. Christian media coverage of the 2000 conference also spread the concepts of Christian homeschooling and church schools throughout Japan’s churches: Principal C attributed his church members’ desire to start their own church school to this media coverage.

The schools use their own words to describe the reasons for their existence in their vision statements, goals, and mottoes. At the most basic level, they exist to provide a ‘Bible-based education’. But most schools interpret this further, showing that their goal is not just to impart Bible knowledge, but to shape children’s lives: ‘We educate children to serve God and to serve others based on Biblical principles’ (Fountain of Life International School, 2006a);  ‘…each one of our students is known by God, and these children will grow up to play an important role in this world… that is why our school exists’ (Samuel International Christian Academy, 2007); and ‘through prayer, study, play and all aspects of school life, to raise students who posses the faith and hope that are rooted in the love of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Horizon International School, 2005).

[1] The literal Japanese translation of ‘church school’ is kyōkai gakkō, and although this term is widely used in Japanese churches, it refers solely to their Sunday morning children’s programme – what UK churches would commonly call ‘Sunday School’. Rather confusingly, many Japanese churches also use the initials ‘CS’ to refer to the ‘Sunday School’ or kyōkai gakkō – the initials actually stand for ‘church school’, but the full-length term is rarely used in that context!

Some Characteristics of Church Schools

So how do the church schools incorporate the Christian faith into education? And what does this entail that makes them different from the compulsory education system?

A ‘Christian’ Curriculum

Church schools typically start their school day with communal worship and Bible teaching. In the three schools I observed, the Bible was taught as relevant for today, the worship was lively and contemporary, and everyone prayed together about the day’s needs, and wider issues such as items in the news, in an informal style. The children were actively involved, playing instruments and praying aloud in their own words.

Christian teaching is not confined to first thing in the morning, however: most church schools base their timetabled hours for each school subject on MEXT guidelines, and make use of the MEXT-approved textbooks that their students receive for free because they remain enrolled in local schools, but they supplement or alter the normal school syllabus to incorporate a Christian worldview. The Fountain of Life International School (2006b) says, ‘when we study the Solar System, we learn how orderly God is… when we study math, we not only learn the correct answers, but that there are certain rules in nature that will never change’. Many church schools, including Schools B and C, use textbooks produced by Bob Jones University,[1] and translated and sold in Japan by CHEA, to supplement the normal school history syllabus, and alongside MEXT-approved science textbooks to teach the students that the biblical view of creation differs from the evolution which is taught in Japanese schools.

In the US, a very wide range of Christian curricula and textbooks are available: the ones that CHEA has had translated into Japanese are among the most conservative available. Even though the schools I observed were using them alongside MEXT texts to show two different views of topics such as evolution, it seemed that the students were not being exposed to the fact that there are vast differences of opinion even within Christian circles on some of these issues. If this tendency continues, the education provided in the church schools is in danger of producing particularly narrow-minded Christian adults.

A Focus on English

In keeping with their titles as ‘International Christian Schools’, many church schools are committed to preparing their students to live and work anywhere in the world. When I interviewed them, the principals of Schools B and C stressed that they wanted to produce graduates who could function well in society and contribute positively to it. Both were also committed to keeping higher education options available to their students, including the possibility of studying outside Japan. The practical outworking of these goals is seen in a strong focus on English language: all three schools I observed provided daily English lessons for all their students, and all three had a native-English speaking teacher as well as a Japanese English teacher. (Interestingly, none of the principals of these schools spoke fluent English). Fountain of Life International School (2006b) names English as one of five ‘pillars of the school’, proclaiming ‘English is important! Seeing the world helps the students to develop a worldview. We train our students from the beginning of their primary education to become a person who can excel anywhere’.

Many church schools focus very strongly on communicative ability in English from the first year of elementary school: as the church schools are still new, and have not yet produced many graduates, the practical outcome of this educational policy cannot yet be evaluated. Their insistence that fluency in English is necessary for Christians to be effective twenty-first century citizens, whether in Japan or abroad, however, stands in contrast to ongoing debates about ‘healthy internationalism’ in the compulsory system and about the level at which English lessons should be introduced in state schools. At present, formal English lessons for students in the compulsory system do not commence until junior high school (see Hood, 2001, 49-77 for further discussion of this).

A Focus on the Individual

As in free schools and homeschooling, a focus on the individual is a characteristic of the church schools, although this time from a Christian perspective. Holloway (1999, 1), in a study of Japanese Christian preschools, concluded that they saw each child as a precious gift from God, and that this led to an encouragement of their creativity, choices in play, and appreciating each other as individuals. The same principles can be seen to apply throughout the church schools, but they also specifically teach the children that the Bible says they are precious and valuable simply because God created them. This leads to an emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual, and a commitment to helping each child find his or her ‘God-given role’ in life. Fukuoka Christian International School (2006) expresses this: ‘in today’s society, people’s worth is calculated according to their abilities or performance, but the Bible teaches that the most important thing is that God created us each individually, and loves us, and thinks we are precious’. Grace International School (2007) has three educational policies: ‘equality (“all individuals are equal before God”), value of the individual (“we are valuable in God’s sight… knowledge alone does not characterize one’s value”), and love (“love your neighbor as yourself”)’. Almost all the church schools use similar ideas and wording in expressing their goals.

This focus on the value of the individual also makes church schools welcoming places for ‘drop out’ students, or students with special needs. Each of the three schools I observed had a small proportion of special needs students. School B had one Down’s syndrome high school student, and one high school student with a mental age of a seven year old: neither of these students was from a Christian home, but their parents had chosen to send them to the school because of the positive atmosphere and the way in which it valued and cared for their children as individuals. These students were integrated into the school community, but rather than focusing on academics, the school was preparing them for their adult lives by teaching them how to shop, cook, and cope with living alone.

As with other forms of alternative education, there is a very high ratio of teachers to students in the church schools, meaning that students can receive a lot of individual attention and help – at School A the teacher:student ratio was 1:2.8; at School B 1:1.45; and at School C 1:0.6! Again, this contrasts strongly with what is available in the compulsory system: MEXT figures for 2004 include national, public and private schools and show average class sizes as 26.3 in elementary schools and 31 at junior high schools. The corresponding teacher:student ratios were 1:17.4 at elementary level and 1:14.7 at junior high school (MEXT, 2005c, 78).

When observing the three church schools, I was struck by the happy and relaxed atmosphere of each school, and particularly the way that children of all ages were playing and working naturally together. Unlike in state schools, where beyond elementary school level a typical classroom posture is ‘head down, avoid eye contact with teachers at all costs’, the children seemed bright, engaged, and keen to interact with the teachers, and I saw no signs of shyness anywhere. This atmosphere can be attributed to the small size of the schools (the largest of the three had a total of only 56 students), but the healthy sense of self-confidence exhibited by the students was probably also the result of the strong focus on their individual value.

[1] Bob Jones University is a private, non-denominational Protestant fundamentalist liberal arts university with a reputation as one of the most conservative religious schools in the US. BJU Press caters specifically to the Christian school and homeschool markets and is one of the largest publishers in this field in the US. (Wikipedia, 2007).



Japan’s church schools exist as a local church-based, grassroots Christian alternative to the compulsory education system, although the majority of Christians in Japan educate their children within the compulsory system, and some officially-recognized private Christian schools are also available. Whereas free schools and most homeschooling were seen to exist in response to problems in the compulsory education system, the church schools do not explain their existence as a response to the system, but rather as a response to biblical injunctions to bring their children up within the Christian faith. The parents who send their children to the church schools believe that they need to educate their children in a setting which imparts a Christian worldview – this is something which is not permitted in the state school curriculum (Fundamental Law of Education, 2006, Article 15). Like the Christian homeschoolers discussed in the previous chapter, they are looking for the freedom to let their own religion underpin their children’s education. The church schools’ beliefs in this area are shared by Japanese and US Christian homeschoolers, and the church schools seem to have been strongly influenced by their rhetoric.

The outlook of the church schools points to a focus on the spiritual rather than the academic, yet the high teacher:student ratio, small class sizes and accepting atmosphere provide a good environment for learning, and mean that they are well-equipped to cater to ‘drop out’ students and those with special needs, although this is a by-product and not the goal of their existence. Their concentration on English study and practical opportunities for involvement in music (as part of daily worship) also add academic strength: the church schools offer the same basic academic content as the compulsory system plus Christian teaching and an extra emphasis on English.

In addition to their religious motivations, the church schools’ distinctive emphasis on ‘opting out’ of the compulsory education system sets them apart from free schools and most home schooling. The somewhat sheltered nature of the schools and the fact that they go unregulated also raises questions of how much freedom parents have in the education of their children, and about the advisability of mixing faith and education. Current worldwide interest in these topics is prompting deeper academic research into the merits and demerits of schools such as these (Holloway, 1999).

NEXT PAGE: Conclusion


Copyright & reproduced here by permission of Heather Nelson

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