Deciding between the local Japanese public school or an international school option

Whether to choose local or international schools would depend on my/your ultimate goals — are you aiming to raise bilingual/biliterate kids or to just expose them to J/E languages or culture; is
your ultimate goal one of higher ed-through-to-career opportunity — are you looking at the kids’ career prospects (or ultimate country of residence) locally or overseas; are you an expat or bicultural or Japanese but “global-oriented” family?

So many factors to consider … so many options too. Quite a challenge to
address them all in the little digital space we have here. But I’ll give it a

A large number of expats send their kids to local schools at elementary level
for “free” local culture and language exposure. Obviously, there are also many
expats who opt for international schools that will best allow their kids to
transition well back into their home countries after an overseas stint…some
expats choose international schools with “globally acceptable” diplomas for
their kids because they are highly mobile and will move from one country to
another for a few decades. These considerations are usually quite
straightforward … parents have expat school packages and don’t have to be so
hands-on with their kids’ education. The only additional consideration is the
degree of exposure or involvement with the local community here in Japan they
want for their kids and the level of foreign language acquisition/exposure they
desire for their children.

Then there are expat parents who homeschool anyway (despite the availability of
the international school option) — either for the pursuit of excellence or
ideological reasons or to bond with their kids and the chance to explore the
world around them. Homeschooling curriculum and mail packages are plentiful
today via the internet and google brings them all to your fingertip for you to

The most difficult choices and issues are faced by bicultural and local Japanese
kikokushijo “returnee” families and globally-oriented J families. All of these
families usually wish or aim for their kids to be balanced bilinguals able to
function in Japan and most likely the bicultural’s “other home country” or
globally. They often face uncertainties such as limitations of educational
budget and resources to support English or third language (eg. German or Chinese
as the case may be) learning. They may face uncertainties such as not knowing
the ultimate place of residence for the children may be, sometimes bicultural
families separate or divorce and the kid is uprooted to a foreign country
without having had sufficient language/edu support in the foreign parent’s
language. Sometimes the foreign parent (and occasionally the Japanese parent) becomes
disillusioned with the local edu system and aims for their kids to be educated
overseas. Bicultural parents struggle to keep up the kids’ skills in English or
the foreign language (and exposure to culture of foreign parent) and often with
the competitive school system here that can stifle creativity and individuality.

Returnee Japanese families have similar problems —
inadvertently in trying to adjust to a stint overseas with kids in international
schools and foreign lifestyle, they often neglect Japanese language learning,
and when they return, their kids sometimes have a real struggle to “catch up” or
“keep up” with school work in Japan. And in catching up, they often also neglect
to keep up with the English (or other foreign language) skills, resulting in a
“lose-lose” situation.

I have heard of all of these problems from juku cramschools and
elementary school teachers, bicultural friends and Japanese kikokushijo returnee  friends, as
well of course, from our own forum and MIJ (Married-in-Japan) type groups. There
may be problems with cultural adjustment in schools, identity problems for
bicultural (and even for returnee) kids. problems “fitting in”, bullying and
ostracisation in addition to an already difficult overload in trying to keep up
studies in two languages.

There are solutions of course, — most commonly resorted to — are juku prep cramschools or hard remedial work by parent(s) with kids are the most common means to helping kids keep
up bilingually and to cope with school.

Tutoring is another option. Nearly most bicultural and J parents are aware of the intensely competitive college entrance “war” to get into first-rate local universities. There is a pyramidal higher education system problem or “gakureki shakai” problem with J society where one’s
career prospects are tied to the ranking of the university one attends, hiring
by Japanese companies is tied to only a few select local universities (despite there
being hundreds of universities (read more here ).

While the Japanese local public school system is perceived globally to be of a high standard, local Japanese and residents know that a select handful of local public schools have a
track record of getting their students into these competitive and select
universities. Hence, there is a psychological “war” mentality, it is said, among
parents to get their kids prepared for college entrance examinations. This
usually entails various options like “moving residence” to a location near one
of these “select” public schools or passing exam in one of the elite private
schools that will prep kids for college entrance or one that provides a
“through-road-to-private university” so negating the college entrance battle
experience altogether. Mostly, that preparation to enter one of Japan’s select
universities entails juku study and prep. The statistics for entry to elite
colleges in Japan do show that successful elite college entrants are mostly juku
attendees. That “college entrance exam war” is noted in the Japanese press as
intensifying tremendously in the past few years, juku prep is said to be
necessary by parents at earlier and earlier grades. It was sufficient during my
husband’s jurassic schooldays to have juku prep for two years or so before
college exams; the next generation parents told us when we first arrived that
juku prep from middle school onwards was barely sufficient; parents in their
thirties today have their kids attend juku from fourth grade onwards; today’s
parents in their late twenties will send their kids to jukus beginning in second
grade, and even earlier (yochien) if they happen to be aiming for elite private
school entry from first grade.

Local Japanese families are concerned as are national policy makers about that
intensifying competitive academic race of course (hence the failed “relaxed
curriculum” policy that cut the school curriculum by 30% for nearly a decade,
and that is only being reversed right now by the current administration). Japanese
families however tend to think juku is a necessary evil and that since the paper credentials over-emphasis problem won’t go away, they grit their teeth and go with the flow.

That intense academic race is sometimes blamed for the fallouts of society who are
said to wind up on the periphery of society as “freeters” or even in the worst
cases, those who withdraw from society sometimes with serious grudges against
the society becoming perpetuators of random school stabbings or street killings.

English language being declared recently as a second language as intensified the
bilingualism academic race as well.

Local families are opting for more diverse paths today:–

Many J parents also spend a “lot” of money on multimedia resources for English
language instruction from early preschool years, and then muddle their way
during the elementary years because English instruction is left to jukus (cramschools) or
eikaiwa (English conversation) schools that only provide once or twice a week instruction at
high rates, and even then, the instruction level (offered once or twice a week )is rarely sufficient to achieve English proficiency. Instruction has been criticized as being
“exam-skill oriented”, which is why traditionally Japanese students can’t speak
English despite their high school years of study.

Many Japanese families who can afford it are taking things into their own hands. There
has been a trend for all-Japanese families to place their kids in international
schools or private Japanese “international school” that sometimes educate
students either bilingually or with a heavy emphasis on English instruction, in
some cases, there are Japanese kindergartens catering to Japanese families instructing
their kids in the English language medium only…probably to compensate for the
hitherto poor state of English language instruction in local schools.

Other families opt for private comprehensive college-prep schools, some of which
have either switched to a bilingual curriculum or have an extraordinary number
of hours of English instruction built into the daily school curriculum. As Eiken
tests most recently show, the number of proficient test-takers is greatly on the

Bicultural parents can follow the same options as Japanese families for bilingual
proficiency aims or like many of us here in this forum, we tend to do it the
“afterschooling” way. With one parent able to speak English (or another foreign
language) taking an active role in instructing their kids with homeschool
packages, materials or sometimes, in an unstructured “unschooling” way, using
the world and multimedia and other exploratory ways of achieving bilingualism
for their kids.

Other options include sending kids to a foreign country to school there earlier
or at later levels, boarding school options. I have a friend whose nephew’s father left Japan for
Germany, and so his kid who had attended local school here through
mid-elementary grades, went to Germany to school there. They had prepared for
that event however, by keeping up the boy’s Germany skills as much as they

Afterschooling or homeschooling full-time — the how to of it — is not really
the huge difficulty, once the decision is made. The great difficulty is having
confidence in knowing that is the right decision we have made.

Bicultural parents especially are riddled with confusion over whether
homeschooling is legal or not (there are those who will say homeschooling is
legal without qualification, but there are forms that you have to fill out
before opting out of local schooling; there are educational boards, school
authorities who will question you over your decision depending on where you
live, and there is a fine to be paid in court if you do not send your kid to
school under the compulsory education system)… most homeschoolers who
homeschool in Japan fulltime do so while still registered in the local public
school…and the rest of them do the best that they can homeschooling in the
leftover “afterschool” hours they have.

Also bicultural parents have the greatest qualms about juku attendance and
having their kids enter the intense academic race that is a national
preoccupation. They may leave it too late (sometimes out of ignorance) for their
kids to be sufficiently prepared for college exams, or they may end up not doing
a sufficient job homeschooling their kids, so that kids end up with a chutohanpa
situation, neither proficient in the native J language nor in the language of
their foreign parent’s … which is also the problem that many returnee Japanese
parents have. Because bicultural and returnee families have so little time to
accomplish the supplementary studies for achieving bilingualism, efficiency,
method of homeschooling and having the “right” materials may be more important
than for fulltime homeschoolers.

Personally, while my kids are bilingual up this point, with my elder about to
enter middle school next academic year, I worry constantly about keeping him and
the younger one “biliterate” to the point where they can sit their exams in
either Japanese or English. And while I feel the elder one has a vocabulary that
is still on par with his English-speaking peers overseas, I feel that he is
beginning to slip in terms of writing skills in comparison with his peers
overseas who are writing in English in so many subjects for the many hours that
they attend school. Middle school years become more academically demanding on
kids in terms of J language learning, and kids grow more social and have more
extracurricular activities. I constantly feel it getting more difficult to pin
my elder one down to serious study at home, and am afraid it will get worse with
a juku overload as well.

If I could do it all over and had the resources, I think with the goal of
bilingual education in mind, I might have chosen the other route i.e. to enrol
my child in the best truly bilingual schools to be found in Japan, such as New
International School (Steve Parr’s school) or one of the elite J private prep
schools (including boarding schools) or if I did not want the responsibility for
afterschooling, then enrolment in Kikokushijo Academy (the Afterschool
International School) which also operates
the that preps for college entry abroad.

Whichever route we take towards achieving bilingual (and bicultural) kids, it is
nearly always easier if the family addresses the issue earlier than later.

I am sure there must be other considerations regarding educational options that have prompted
you to make the choices that you have? I’d sure like to hear more comments…


2 thoughts on “Deciding between the local Japanese public school or an international school option”

  1. I was put in to a school that was fully optimized for English while in Japan. As a result I can’t function in Japan (professionally) where my family and extended family lives. I received top tier education in Japan (K-12) and in the US for college. I know my parents did what they thought was best for me. I’m appreciative of that. I now make 500-700k a year at fortune 100 company so I think I turned out ok. But I do feel alone in the US. If I had a say in my education path, I would have chosen a more balanced education or one that’s optimized for Japan. Family > Money and success. My goal now is to maximize my net worth so I can return to Japan without the fear of having to find an employer there.

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