Rejoining school system in Japan after time away can be tough



Floyd hopes to move back to Japan but is worried about his 11-year-old son fitting into the Japanese school system and being accepted at a good high school:

“He lived in Japan from birth to age 5. He has kept up with his Japanese skills, but the person I spoke to thinks you need to be in schools there all the time to really make it.”

Several factors may play a role in his adjustment back to Japan, including how well your son has kept up his Japanese (including kanji reading and writing), where you live in Japan, when he enrolls in a Japanese school, and his personality and ability to adapt to new situations.

The first thing to consider is when you’ll move to Japan and when your son will begin school. Much of junior high is spent preparing for the high school entrance exams, and in high school the university entrance exams. Not starting school from the beginning, either of junior high or high school, means potentially falling behind academically or requiring extra work to catch up, and may cause problems socially, as relationships are usually established during the first year (though this varies by school and child).

Also, if the school your son attended abroad was not a Japanese school, it’s possible he may be behind in certain subjects, such as math or kanji reading and writing.

Masayoshi Sogabe, who was born in Japan but raised in Los Angeles, later returned to Kanagawa to attend junior high and high school and found himself in this situation. He spoke Japanese because of his parents, but his kanji skills were poor, which meant doing extra homework to get up to par. He also had to catch up in math, and found language arts in Japan to be difficult.

Janina LaMattery, a high school student in Japan who had spent her first year of high school abroad, also had issues with math: “In the States they have different classes for each type of math (such as algebra and geometry); in Japan, they learn everything in one class and it gets harder each year. For me, it was easy to learn math over in the States because the math I did there I had already done before in Japan.” However, she also said she didn’t have too much trouble adapting after being away.

Colin Yoshioka-Smith points out that kids from Japan are often embarrassed to use Japanese while living abroad (he mentions the U.K. as an example) as their friends typically don’t speak it. “This then results in them not being confident in their language at home as they spend their day in English. They then go back to Japan with a much lower-level language ability than other kids still in Japan, particularly with kanji. This does depend on how long they are abroad and if speaking Japanese is encouraged at home, but this is similar to the issues of putting kids into international school in Japan, where the kanji ability may be lower.”

Some Japanese schools may even frown upon time spent abroad. Janina’s mother Erinn said that although her daughter was only abroad for a year, they were told by their area’s top high school that Janina would have to repeat her first year of high school in Japan because she had missed a year of kanji, and not all of her U.S. credits would be accepted.

“We settled on a lower-level high school that accepted most of her credits from the U.S., but she still has to complete an extra five months in order to graduate. She is fluent in both English and Japanese so this was quite frustrating for us.”

On a similar note, Stephen Johnson adds: “I am familiar with several returners who’ve been labeled ‘unreassimilatable,’ if we can make this a word. Granted, if they speak and read Japanese at a level commensurate with their grade, it’s not quite impossible. My son is fluent, in private fifth grade, and the local school said it would not be possible to reassimilate him (not that we’d want to do that to him).”

Stewart Dorward, who sees many “returnee” and bicultural youth in his position managing English teachers for private schools in Japan (and whose own children did not attend a Japanese school while abroad), offers the following advice to parents returning from overseas in regards to timing and potential academic issues:

“Choose the timing of your return if possible. Either the beginning of junior high (so that they can start a new school with everyone else) or the start of the last year of senior high (when the emphasis is on entry to university.) Additionally, your child may need support in reading and writing Japanese — they can speak it but are unlikely to be able to study in it. It is also likely that they will be behind in terms of subject content as Japanese high schools have a much higher academic standard than those in English-speaking countries.”

Next week: Social issues, getting into a good high school, and communication. Ashley Thompson writes survival tips and unique how-tos about living in Japan at Send all your questions to

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