Guide to surviving yochien (kindergarten) in Japan

A- On hindsight, the preparation for yochien’s first day is actually the least of our
difficulties, though it may seem overwhelming at first. The list of items required for kindie always comes with a picture of each item with dimensions. Yochiens’ individual requirements vary. Some require hand-made, and made to dimension; others aren’t fussy – store-bought are OK and a little variation or the one’s used from one’s previous yochien after a transfer are acceptable. One visit to one
of the haberdashery shops is useful as you will samples of everything
hanging. You can also buy sets ready-made or kits for everything nowadays.
Compare this to the very first yochien my elder attended where the
encho-sensei insisted that everything had to as individually and “lovingly”
handmade. Or buy them at one of the bazaar’s before the schoolyear
dirt-cheap. Keep a special wall/spot for hanging all yochien and hang that
list with the list with pictures of the items until you get used to the
routine and can remember what your kid has to bring and on which day! Book
bags on certain days, maybe lunchboxes only on some days and not others
(kyushoku) – smocks on Mondays and Wednesdays, etc. Having a picture handy
also helps your kid get organized in getting ready for school each day and
in putting away stuff each day, on that score – my daughter is as terrific
as my son was terrible! Reinforce the yochien training that kids get, they
learn how to put everything systematically away at school and can do
everything themselves if you have a similar system at home (very

B- When everything is in Japanese and you are non native, trying to read
everything and remember their contents can get overwhelming. As early as you
can, separate the notes for four categories as soon as you can, so you can
find things quickly 1) Contact Lists 2) Bus Schedule 2) School Events
Schedule 4) Security Code

– In my experiences these are the above four areas that can foul up your day
and make you feel really hassled.

C – Contact lists – if you have more than one kid, you will be in deep
trouble if you can’t produce these on hand quickly. By around the second or
if not third week of term, the first renraku mou has begun, and you will be
contacted according to the pre-ordinated sequence of contacts. My first hint
of organization is use a clear folder with all the renraku mous at the front
– and close to the phone – so no fumbling or rushing to the drawers when the
inevitable phone call comes, OR keep them all pegged or magnetized-clipped
to the fridge if it is near the phone. Use a highlight marker pen – I learnt
quite late on how useful it has been to circle or highlight a. the
yakuin-san’s (class leader(s) name b. the renraku mou (contacting leader)’s
name c. the persons in front of you and after you in the contact sequence –
d. and of course duh – the sensei’s name and of course encho-sensei’s name.
Memorizing all of these names will possibly some of future grief that could
arise and also help smooth relations at upcoming yochien, PTA kondankai,
kojinmendan etc, etc meetings.
Organizing these contact lists are a key to my sanity I have discovered in
the past and saves from embarrassment – I have at times 6 or more of these
lists with both yochien and public school. Equally important are the jishin
disaster drills that only come around once in a while and other
event-specific or circle-specific ones that can be added to the folder.

D – If you use the busing system, around a collection stop, this is an
excellent and efficient system as most of you already know, necessary for
submitting kyushoku (school-lunch) miscellaneous items’ fees – collecting
stationary or materials for craft – submitting absentee/lost-and-found and
other notes to the teacher. If you haven’t already, visit the 100 yen shop
and buy one of those cute tiny memo notepads for your messages to the
teacher(s) and also for the yakuin-san or other group leaders, and some
handy small money envelopes (the latter may not be necessary for yochien or
school use but will come in handy when parents wish to buy a gift for
someone, ie the teacher or yakuin-san to show appreciation and you can use
it for your contribution).

E – On busing, for myself it is imperative to early on in the school year
have identified and approached at least one or two other persons in the
group, to have made friends with them and asked if it is alright to exchange
phone numbers, in case of emergencies. These come in very handy, when you
are held up in traffic or on appointment at the hospital or whatever, or if
you are a block away when the bus is steaming up the path to your drop-off
point. WIth some yochien, you can have an arrangement for the assembled
group to hold your kid, with others you need to inform the yochien that some
one else is allowed to hold your kid and with still other yochiens, your kid
will have to go the whole journey on the bus and back to yochien and you
will have to pick your poor kid up red-faced at yochien! So if you fall
into the latter categories, make sure you have the phone numbers of yochien,
bus-leader, “holding” friend and in some cases, bus-sensei or driver’s phone
number entered into your phone. If you subscribe to azakari-hoiku or
afterschool yochien help, then also enter that sensei’s phone number into
your handphone. Very often, if you are lucky, the mutual friend you have
identified for holding your kid, their kid will likely become a firm friend
of your kid, as your kids spend some time playing at the nearby playground
until you have come to pick up your kid. And if you are new in Japan, you
will likely make some new friends as well. Being able to identify willing
partners for such emergencies can either turn into an area of great
distress, or can make your life as a parent a great joy. These informal and
usually chatty busing groups can informally disseminate useful information,
develop great playmates for your kids, or they can turn into horrid
“waiting-area” where you can feel ostracized and uncomfortable and you can
be criticized for not doing the right thing or for being forgetful and
disorganized. It is useful for me to swallow my pride and apologize early on
for being the stupid foreigner if your Japanese is as wanting as mine was in
the beginning, because believe you will need every bit of help you can get
as the year progresses! If you don’t have a handphone, keep these sets of
information together either on a specially made contact card or portable
book and a phone card / change handy! MAKE FRIENDS with and do not cross
your busing leader, our last year’s leader was a remarkable and formidable
lady who took it upon herself to remind everybody what to hand in when and
always remembered to ask, even if you forgot. And then you had the chance to
do it, as the bus returned with your kid later in the day. She also made it
a point to remind every one pickup times, variations in schedules, school
events, obentos the next day.

G – Keep your security code for the gate handy or memorize it for picking up
your kid when the gates may be closed.

H – Calendar events. There are usually standard formats and letters that
give you notice of when you have to hand in stuff and turn up for events and
meetings. In my folder, I have both kids annual calendar on hand, and then
the monthly schedules that usually indicate all the holidays, events,
variations, o-bento or kyushoku days. Immediate “for action” and hand-in
stuff memos are clipped up where I can see it constantly on the fridge and
must check through them on a daily or frequent basis. I write everything in
English even though I can read all the hiragana on the notes, because on
days when I’m tired or frazzled I find the slightest non-English note
unfathomable. It is helpful with each event that comes along each time, to
add it to a list of standard yochien vocabulary list – so you can recognize
the kanji (from banners, letters, memos, etc) and the pronunciation and your
translated meaning in English. Hmmm maybe we should post a list here.
Anybody want to contribute this?

I- Communicating with the school. You may not realize it at first, but
foreigners who are illiterate in Japanese are a great drain on the resources
and time of the school/yochien community. If you receive any help at all, it
is kudos to that school. Many will bend over backwards to help. Of course,
you will need help and may have to ask for it if the school doesn’t realize
you need it. One thing that could help, is – where you do not have the help
of a community or busing group – or friends – to ask the teacher to
highlight with a marker pen – stuff/notes to be handed it – make a note of
the deadlines – and get them translated by J husband or J-speaking friend.
If the notes are not written in hiragana, then you might ask the teacher to
include a short note in hiragana so that you can call someone on the phone
and ask what that means. If you are not able to read hiragana (followed by
katakana), I recommend at least you learn – it is quickly learnable – I made
hand-held cards, carried them around all day and wrote all the hiragana and
memorized them within 3 days when I first had to learn. You can use the same
cards later for your kid. With hiragana, you can at least read the notes,
and by the by, remember the key words for survival vocabulary. Though it is
overwhelming for the first-time yochien parent, by second year, you can get
by quite well – if you figure out the key events and vocab. And when you get
to public school, it is just more of the same routine though the wads of
letters increase and none of it is hiragana. You will find the school
community in raptures when you show some sign of hard work to try to be
cooperative and independent.

J – Kindie events can be BIG depending on the reputation and tradition in
the yochien. For some, the bazaars are THE thing, for many the undo-kai or
sports day. The other big thing is the support system – the yakuin and
renraku and hahanokai people who help the teachers and who get everything to
run smoothly – they are BIG. The work that goes on behind these is also
esteemable. Unfortunately, if you are illterate or worse non J-speaking,
then there is very little you can do in a big way. Do try to help in every
way possible though – in meeting up with craft circles to help for the
bazaar – there is a day before undo-kai day where everyone comes in to help
tidy up the grounds, it usually involves picking up stones clearing the
tracks. This is usually the minimum requirement of yochiens for parents who
work or who are busy with babies and toddlers or other excuses. You will be
asked at some point to tick a list of events/things that you’d like to
choose to help the yochien during the yochien schoolyear. Two of the things
that you CAN help are Sports Day itself – marking circles, helping teachers
to make hoops or equipment, banners, for the day, etc. Another is offering
help with summer pool activities. This is unpopular on account of parents
having to be on hand to help set up the pool before everyone arrives but it
is only for a short time – it may involve helping the kids get into their
suits and stuff ready and such. If you are very brave, you can volunteer to
head and run a stall cooking something for the annual bazaar. I’m sure many
of you are up to such a task though I’m too chicken to risk the reputation
of the school upon my efforts. At the end of the term or school year, there
are unseen chores that you can ask to help out with sometimes – eg. offering
to take home the classroom curtains to wash them. (This is more appreciated
at public school probably though).

K – Lunchboxes – many discussion have been had on this list on this area.
But I have personally found that every yochien my kids have attended have
been very successful in getting my kids to eat up all their food almost
without exception through a variety of incentives – this is one area we are
very grateful to the yochien system and rarely have to much to worry about
(and my daughter is as picky an eater as they come) – and we should find it
easy to introduce a number of healthy foods that we know they don’t like but
that we want them to eat. I have never seen a kid who didn’t look forward to
an obento anyway. Just remember to make an effort to make the meal
presentation as attractive as possible – especially during days when parents
are invited to watch the kids during a lunchmeal and during an ensoku
excursion or outing – to prevent any kind of gossip forming behind your back
among the mothers.

L – Perosnal notes of appreciation and thanks from time to time for say,
having found time to meet with you to discuss your kid – for a phone call
from the teacher – for anything – will stand you in good stead whenever you
have to appear before school and when you go to collect your kid at school
and spend the two minutes talking with your kid’s teacher.

M – Depending on the yochien, like the current one my daughter is attending
has an amazing line up of parent’s circles doing everything from ikebana to
yoga to craft to running a kiddie book club to rockband activities! These
are great places for you to circulate and pick up friends and Japanese. By
nenchu-san, second year, you will know a lot more people or at least during
happyokai concerts you can find a familiar face to sit down beside during
all the intolerable waiting that goes on.

N – Playground. Watch out if your yochien is one of the unruly places where
kids run wild – watch out that your kid doesnt get into fights or kicked or
that sort of thing. It’s hard to believe that such things take place – but
they do. Dust, sand gets everywhere since outdoor active play is key in
almost every yochien I know of. Check the pockets of pants and smock before
you wash, I have found dead pill bugs, leaves, rocks, candies…

O – First year is always hardest. If your kid is gregarious, lucky you. If
not, know that it takes a lot out of the most energetic of kids – in ways we
don’t usually realize – coping with the routine – coping with instructions –
coping with social life with a bunch of other roughcut gems that kids
usually are. It is quite usual for a number of kids who won’t want to get on
the school bus, drag their feet to yochien, to wake up even, to cooperate to
the tune of a new routine. I had read the Magic School Bus to my son before
yochien, and had succeeded in having my son happily think he was boarding
the Magic School Bus to yochien for about a month before he realized it
wasn’t magic afterall. My daughter didn’t talk to anyone for one whole year
in her first year. And my son wet himself everytime term began. But happily
now, my son remembers yochien activities to have been very enjoyable (even
though we thought we had some grievous days with him) and my daughter lives
for yochien and someday school (even though she isn’t the gregarious sort at

So take heart, and have a good running start – if this is your first time,
yochien gets better in nenchu and nencho san and they get quite civilized
and adept in every way by the time they’re ready for ichinensei. You’ll
notice the huge difference in the different age groups during the happiokai


My experience with yochien and shogako is that there is a lot of tolerance for
mistakes made by foreign mothers, especially if you make an effort to understand
what’s going on. I don’t think that the mistakes cast a bad light on the
children, or even on the mothers.

Our daughter went to yochien for about 6 months when she was 4, and then we
were back in America and now we’re back and she has gone to shogako since
August. We are leaving for the U.S. in June. She has not found a foreign
language environment comfortable or easy; after talking to other parents of
children in foreign language environments (both Japanese in U.S. and foreigners
here) I think that she has had a harder time than most children. However, I
think that the experience has been wonderful for us, as a family, for me as
someone living in a foreign country, and for her (maybe more in the future than
now). I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have a tremendous regard for
Japanese schools, and hope that my daughter will have picked up things here that
she couldn’t have learned in America.

Even though it is hard to figure everything out, it is certainly not
impossible. There is always somebody who is happy to help. If you get it
wrong, someone will correct you, don’t worry. There are rarely any lasting
consequences. The primary schools here are often such happy, healthy places
that it would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to at least try it.

My DS started youchien last year (DD will start next). I was really nervous
at first – my DS is one of those high-energy ‘spirited’ kids, who have a
hard time with transitions, etc. Plus, my DH and I can only speak really
basic Japanese and DS only spoke a few words when he started.

I had J-friends translate all the youchien information for me, and one came
with me to the open/information day.

When I went (on my own) to the sign-up day, I ordered their full pack of all
the play-dough, crayons, etc, so I wouldn’t miss anything out. I didn’t
make anything by hand, but just bought what the youchien sold. Also, one
teacher came up and asked me in English if I knew what to do.

We only live a few minutes away, so DS doesn’t have to go on the bus and I
see the teachers every day and they can talk to me if there are any
problems. Sometimes they’ll write a little note and then I can take it away
and get a friend to translate it for me.

We don’t have a calling system at our youchien – they have a keitai system,
so the youchien has all the parents’ cell phone numbers and sends out an
automated message when necessary (to cancel classes due to snow, typhoons,
etc), so that makes it really easy.

I have to make an obento once a week and at first I was a bit daunted about
getting my onigiri just right, but in the end DS insisted on having
sandwiches and the same thing for lunch every time, so that made it really
easy! Although the one time when I made a shinkansen onigiri, his teacher
commented on it!

My neighbour is on the youchien PTA and is really involved, but I haven’t
really done anything. I do think they make allowances for those of us who
really don’t have much clue what’s going on. At first I was really stressed
about getting everything right and I still sometimes make mistakes, but now
that I’ve got things kind of figured out, it’s a lot more easy-going – you
just have to give yourself permission to be the odd one out. The staff at
the youchien has been really helpful and the other mothers have been
wonderful. Even after a year, I’m gradually finding more mums that speak
English too.

My DS has picked up so much Japanese and really loves youchien – he gets sad
during the holidays when he can’t go. He loves playing outside with his
friends, learning to spin the Japanese top, plus there’s all the animals
(rabbits, turtles, peacocks.), growing and cooking sweet potatoes., not to
mention the break for me! It makes those difficult days worth it.

– N.


We are starting our fourth
year of yochien. I found the first post (sorry don’t
have the cross-reference here) highly informative. It
was also “foreign” to me– I could learn a lot from
it! Despite that, we have managed quite well in the
yochien, I believe. I don’t know if that is because
the yochien has been highly accepting compared to
others- we just have the experience of one yochien.

The first year was quite difficult for me. Now I know
the yochien schedule, which remains the same year
after year, and I sometimes remember more about the
schedule than the other moms! I know what is
important and what is not important.

I also don’t feel so frustrated about having to ask
for help because I have had a lot of practice in
asking by now! I also have grown out of being
offended at being corrected. At the beginning I felt
embarassed and frankly insulted, but now I realize
that if a Japanese friend wants you to do things the
right way they are actually helping you rather than

My advice is to get the yearly school calendar
translated and put all the events on your calendar at
the beginning of the year. Then things won’t sneek up
on you and you won’t have to depend on the monthly
newsletter to learn about something that may be
happening at the beginning of the month. You can also
sort of guess what the letters are about at certain
times of year. This year I typed out the calendar in
English for a new foreign mom and my Japanese friend
was so impressed that she asked for a copy! I laughed
because she has the copy in Japanese!

Secondly, keep all your papers in a file so that in
subsequent years I will remember what letters are
about what. I just write the basic topic of the
letter and file chronologically. I also learned to
photocopy the beginning-of-the-year forms so I don’t
have to figure out the responses again the second year
(the forms such as emergency contact info and family

My son started yochien about 2 weeks after we moved to
Japan. We were still staying in a hotel at that point
and it was October so we started mid-year. My husband
said that my son could start the day after our
interview! I now laugh at the memory of going to
every store in town that night asking if they had a
certain size uwabaki bag. Of course they didn’t, it
was particular to the yochien! Now I realize that the
yochien wouldn’t have cared if it had been weeks
before I could receive my sewing machine to make the
right bag, but at that stage we wanted to do
everything right. Even Japanese moms have a hard time
getting up to speed on a new yochien when they move!
If you are not a sewer, I would recommend finding a
local sewing shop and for a price they will make
everything for you!

Another blessing with my yochien is that has has no
bus so even moms who drive in like me see the senseis
and other mothers every day. I make a point of going
out of my way for this “face time” so they become more
familiar with me and my kids. It makes me feel a part
of the community, and the happenings at the yochien
are not so much of a mystery to me.

On my second day at the yochien, a mom approached me
and spoke English. She because a great help and good
friend that year. I learned that many other moms can
speak English- some quite fluently- and they didn’t
approach me until months later. Japanese are quite
shy about trying out their English but grateful once
you get to know them because they love to spruce up
their English. One thing that helped is I started a
bi-monthly bento lunch date at my house for chatting
in English (I don’t like doing formal lessons.) The
moms tend to be less intimidated when they are with
other moms and the idea is to “practice” English. I
have made several friends this way as well as learned
a lot of the school gossip!

I never make a fancy bento. The other moms don’t see
them and the senseis never comment on them. My first
son eats nothing but peanut butter and jelly
sandwitches so that is what he gets every day. In
shogakko he didn’t even eat kyoshoku so the sensei
insisted that I send bento but never commented on what
I sent. I don’t care if it makes me look like a bad
mom as long as my kids are not eating Fritos (which of
course cannot be on the bento menu!) My second son
likes more variety, but it is strictly American fare.
My third child has lived here long enough to develop a
Japanese taste so I will finally have to figure out
how to prepare Japanese foods for her, since I think
she will care more about the appearance of her lunch
compared to her peers than her brothers do. But I
will do it for her, not for what the senseis or the
moms think about my bento.

At our school if you have children younger than
yochien age then you don’t have to do a job. Since my
youngest just started yochien, this is my first year
doing a job, but it allows the English speakers a
chance to identify themselves!

I imagine there must be moms who are less than pleased
about my foreign presence, but they will never overtly
discriminate so I just ignore that possiblity and
insulate myself in ignorance, happy for my foreign

This is a great topic! – LN

 I can talk about my hoikuen expereince; the food was
fantastic, and teaching table manners too, the creative arts were
truley brilliant, the approach to play and freedom of choice just
excellent, the dedication and hard work of the staff and their endless
efforts to support us busy parents was unbelievable. Anyway well worth
mastering those tricky bits and bobs Aileen described.
– C.

10 thoughts on “Guide to surviving yochien (kindergarten) in Japan”

    1. It depends on the yochien’s practice whether as parents you are allowed. But as far as I can remember, parents don’t usually attend J. yochien tanjoukais. I also recall no fancy cakes or parties. The usual key J. consideration is so that families who are not wealthy will not feel they have to match what other families are doing. Whether you are even allowed to buy any snacks or sweets and such, also depends on the individual yochien, some do and some don’t, and when they do, they may have very strict rules again about what is acceptable and what isn’t for distribution. If you are new to the school, it is best to ask your child’s teacher exactly what the practice is.

  1. My daughter will start Yochien on Monday and though she attended hoikuen before I am still worried about the difference of the 2. This aricle is really of good help to us gaijin mom in Japan. I have question please?? You havn`t mention about tanjoukai or the birthdat celebrant meeting. Does they require parents or at least parent to attend? Is it allowed to hold kid`s own birthday party there?

    Thanks a lot!!!

  2. Thanks alot for your intresting article , I really appreciate it from my heart.
    I learnt alot from it , and certainly i will read it over and over again whenever I get problems abt. my son who will turn three on Nov.
    Plz always share your experiance am sure may ppl. will enjoy your detailed writting .
    God Bless u

  3. my daughter is going to start her youchien from next month and while i was trying to find some helpful tips from internet i found ur suggestion. thank you its so helpful n i am really nervous now as to how i am going to manage this. i have a terrible japanese and very poor communication. 😞

    1. For starters, just practise and memorize your introductions, that is the minimum you need, the rest will just either all go over your head or be a steep learning curve, so just relax and learn to smile a lot. It’s OK to be nervous, because many Japanese mums are equally nervous. If you can’t find a friend to translate for you, ask to be assigned by the school to a teacher who has some basic English.

  4. This is an incredibly helpful article. My daughter is starting Yochien next year and we just picked up the application form. I was wondering if you would mind sharing your list of Yochien vocab?

  5. This helps a lot! My daughter just got accepted for april next yr..☺️ As a gaikokujin, im also nervous on what to prepare and what to expect.. Thats why im reading a lot of insights about yochiens..


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