The majority of Japanese yochien (preschools or kindergartens) are privately run – because the compulsory education system does not cover the preschool years. However, according to press reports, the government is currently considering a bill to make preschool or kindergarten compulsory – as part of its bid to boost academic skills and discipline of children entering elementary schools.
Considering Your Local Japanese Kindergarten
Parents or guardians who work in the day usually have recourse to nursery schools or hoikuen for the care of young children.
A preschool education is not considered compulsory which is why the majority of preschools are privately-run. Kindergartens offer three, two and one year programmes, meant for three, four and five year old children respectively. In order to enroll, the child must have reached the appropriate age for the programme being entered into by April 1st of the entrance year. The non-Japanese child must also have a valid alien registration.
If you are intending to put any of your children in a Japanese preschool or kindergarten called yochien, please remember that on October 15th the preschools release their application papers and relevant information, and that the preschools will start accepting the applications exactly on November 1st. It is recommended that you submit your forms on November 1st in order to secure a place for your child.
This is the season when all the parents are making their decisions on which yochien to send their kids to and also when families tighten their money belts as the entry/registration fees will take a huge chunk of their monthly salaries (usually their bonus).
Yochien, ireru ka doo ka? Yochien: to go or not to go is the question.
What you need to know:
- You can pick up a list of yochiens and hoikuens from your local town hall or ward office (shiakusho or kuyakusho). Ask if your prefecture has the Daily Living Guide for Foreigners, many prefectures have it and it comes in most handy.
- On exactly October 15th the preschools released their application (moshikomi) papers and relevant information and the preschools start accepting the applications exactly on November 1st.
- The various yochien have their own dates for “setsumeikai” that is, an explanation day, when parents can go to visit, walk around the schools, receive a briefing and participate in a Q & A session. Most yochien (with a few exceptions) require prior appointments. A few will welcome visitors anytime to look around. Interestingly enough, most Japanese parents do not ask at briefing sessions what the school methodology/philosophy is – they assume that all teachers are professionals and know what they are doing. The key considerations are borne out of “brand” consciousness i.e., whether the school is “ninki ga aru” (popular or not), whether the peers in the same housing complex will be attending the school, and out of convenience, i.e., whether there are school-buses and whether they have to prepare lunchboxes everyday or not. Nor do they ask about bullying (ijime). Foreigners tend to be concerned about “ijime” (bullying) problem and want to know how teachers will handle the problem, but locals just say it will make the kids stronger.
- Yochiens commonly have three years of schooling: nensho (1st year), nenchu (2nd year) and nencho (3rd year).
Yochiens and generally schools here in Kashiwa City with the surrounding expensive residential suburbs are said to be especially of a very high standard nationally…even real estate pamphlets highlight proximity to a good school as a key selling point. Costs are thus representative of the Tokyo and high-end Kansai area, so I hope that the following account of my yochien-hunting process will give interested parents a feel for the great variety of Japanese preschools available, as well as to ask the right questions and weigh all the factors carefully in assessing which school meets their child’s needs.
As rumors fly, you may have heard tales of the notorious difficulty of getting into Japanese yochien. In my case, the rumors turned out to be true…even before the application date (November 1st) had come around, my son was already barred from entering these schools.
Here’s my story: Here in Kashiwa, the two most popular (presumably the best) preschools in Kashiwa are Midori Yochien and Masuo-Daiichi Yochien. At some kindergartens (like Masuo-Daiichi Yochien), parents have to wait on a long line to get an application form. Some parents start waiting on a line at 2 – 4 am in the morning of October 15th in order to get one (this happens every year). Securing a copy of the limited few application forms is the only way of ensuring a place for your kid in such kindergartens. On the other hand, at some kindergartens (like Midori Yochien), you have wait on a long line to hand in the form. Some parents start waiting on a line at 2 am in the morning of November 1st in order to give them the form. Since it is all on a first-come-first-served basis and there are limited places available, you have to be able to hand in the form early in line to secure your kid a place in the kindergarten.
As it turned out, my whole family was down with the flu so we didn’t pick up a copy of the application form from Masuo-Daiichi yochien, so that that yochien had to be ruled out. I went to Midori Yochien conscientiously to visit, but when I went to pick up the application papers, they said they weren’t printing anymore because their 3 year-old and 4-year-old enrolments were at already full capacity. This left a lot of panic-stricken mothers in the neighbourhood. We surmise that families who already had a sibling in the preschool had probably gotten priority and filled up the places even though application papers were supposed to be accepted only from November 1st.
Since my son had not gotten a place for the first year of these preschools, there was virtually no chance of him entering these “prestigious” preschools next year either. Fortunately for us, as we explored our options further, we think we actually found better options.
The Midori Yochien visit was scheduled on a school morning so that parents would be able to see the children in action. A very accommodating enchyo sensei (administrative teacher) showed us all around. A middle-sized schoolyard generously (more so than others) equipped with a giant sandbox, climbing frames, tunnel structures, slides, with two just-perfect-for-climbing real trees right in the centre. There was evidence that the kids had been gardening, and there were dogs, rabbits, hamsters for petting, even ducks too. The classrooms were really clean, with hundreds of crayons/colored pencils neatly displayed and very very bright with ground-to-ceiling windows. The corridors were clear for running children, staircases had beautiful stained-glass windows and there were a few Spanish art masterpieces hanging on the walls (as my Hispanofile friend of mine pointed out to me). The school actually had its own pottery furnace as the children made their own pottery work and other craft. As I asked about the actual teaching, the teachers said no writing was taught, not even basic hiragana recognition. The kyoiku hoshin (philosophy) was derived decades ago from some French school of thought (I could not make out the French name) plus a variety of other sources. However, class-size was reasonable around twenty-odd with three teachers each class as of next June (presently two per class).
After our little visit around, hordes of children (4-6) tumbled out into the yard, they were the happiest looking kids I have ever seen in any school anywhere. The teachers looked young energetic, I saw quite a few were cheerful looking male teachers. I was told that the school aimed at healthy and “genki” kids (in the sense of physical and emotional well-being). This school as I had heard from many mums was infamous for its extremely long outdoor athletic activities, and was thus especially popular with mums with boys. As the older children returned to their classes, the 3 year-olds came out to play and I saw (through the windows) the returning kids crowding right close up to their teachers in what was probably a story-telling session.
All in all, I would rate the preschool very high in ambience and environment, but I had great reservations about the fact that nothing academic was taught there (which the teacher admitted). Since my family is bicultural and I speak to my son only in English, I naturally wanted a Japanese preschool education to compensate for the lack of Japanese exposure at home.
Although I did not visit the other most prestigious preschool Masuo-Dai-iichi Yochien, my neighbour who had sent her two girls there said that the school was just a playschool (asobi basho) and they taught no academics there either, no hiragana and no math, but that her girls had enjoyed themselves there.
The third option was the biggest one. A family friend who sent her son there and whose daughter will attend next year, had said the Kashiwa Kindergarten was more balanced than most, not all play and not all work. But when I went to visit, I didn’t like the rather impersonal, concrete/brick, institution-like big building. The classrooms were big, but had no natural sunlight so that they had to make do with lots of florescent lighting. Parents here had to pay the school an unusual expensive monthly utility bill (airconditioning and heating) which other schools didn’t require. The fees were surprisingly the most expensive of the schools too. An equally impersonal (and boring) briefing to more than a hundred odd parents left me feeling quite depressed.
Getting more stressed by the day as the application date approached, I gravitated towards Mikuni Yochien, a Japanese version of the Montessori school. It was a teaching methodology I was familiar with, and when I visited the school and found they had all the requisite Montessori equipment (see the Resource Appendix for more on the Montessori method). Fees were comparable with all the other Ks. However, it bothered me a little that the school building was a little dilapidated and that the children didn’t look as “genki” as elsewhere. Also, there was no school busing since the school intended that children should learn the practical value (hardship I think) of daily commuting and spend that travelling time in conversation with a parent. Furthermore, no meals were provided so mothers would have to prepare their kids’ obentos. With a new-born baby to look after next summer, the prospect of commuting daily and preparing obentos was not a welcome one.
Then I went to pick up the moshikomi papers at Kaga Yochien. The school didn’t bother with making impressions and held no special briefings.It was come-when-you-please, ask all the questions you want and I was free to wander around. It was located within twenty minute walk (5 min drive) of home, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a pretty pink and white school building (with an equally pretty pink school-bus). It was right beside a decent public park but the yochien had its own schoolyard. I went inside the school, couldn’t find the administrative room and there were children spilling out of all the classrooms, everywhere. It was “free-playtime” just before the school-buses came to pick up the kids. It was a great din with kids talking at the tops of their voices and looking very lively. The playground was quite uncluttered, just a straight row of potted plants by the fence, but offered a large open space with real gym equipment (tumbling horse and mats), great climbing frames and two wonderful slides (the stainless-steel roller ones that rattle to the kids’ delight). The climbing frame was shaped like a tall pirate’s ship complete with sails and suspension-bridge gangwalks, and very colorful. My son attacked them with great glee.
There were no gardening patches though, and no petting animals, the yard was very clean (no muddy compound)….a plus point for kids with dust and skin allergies. The classrooms were were interestingly decorated, bright with floor-to-ceiling windows, AND every classroom had a piano and tape-cassette/CD players! The school’s selling point was its key rhythm-and-movement curriculum (of the Swiss Danclaus rhythmy school) and as I looked in on the obento-hour, I watched the teacher singing and playing the piano as the children ate and listened to the music. The children looked a little wild to me, but that’s probably because it was free-play time and because of my all-girl convent background (shrine-affiliated preschools enforce more discipline I am told). Although a very activity-oriented curriculum, the school also taught both math and hiragana and even had English classes with a gaijin sensei. They also focused on aesthetics education, the appreciation of tea ceremony and other arts. Another interesting feature was that parents could elect to send their kids everyday (Mon-alternative Sats) or any flexible combinations of two, three or four school-days. A big minus point for me was the class size which teachers said could go up to 35 maximum although I saw quite a reasonable sized class for the 3 year olds. Although entrance fee was as high as most other yochien, the monthly tuition was the cheapest ranging between 5,000 yen to 13,000 yen. No uniforms were required hence no extra-cost there. School-busing was available for any option and the school provided catered obentos. Mothers had fewer PTA and other usual preschool duties than elsewhere which accounted for its popularity with foreigners. I have a very energetic and gregarious boy whose needs appear to be likely to met by coming here. My little just-out-of-his-diapers boy said “mama I really really like this school. I want to go everyday to this school”. So at the time of writing, this is where I intend to put him.
- Be forewarned, many popular Japanese preschools are merely play-schools so your child may learn no math or Japanese writing (as was the case in the two most popular schools here in Kashiwa). Teaching methodology is really difficult to judge, and you may have to probe a little. The average yochien conducts little academic instruction compared to schools in the US or in the rest of Asia for that matter. Elementary schools will tell the kindergartens not to teach basic hiragana, to avoid boredom in their classrooms from having to learn the same stuff all over again. In any event, you will find that kids have already been taught at home using Shirojima/Benesse’s Shinkenzemi or Doraizemi programs (or by Kumon teachers), and that most kids are exchanging letters daily by their third year.
- Nearly all the schools visited had in their mission-statement “genki” health and emotional well-being or happiness as their goals. In all fairness, there is plenty of music and art to be had in the curriculum and every preschool teacher who is hired can play the piano and every classroom has a piano without exception. Yochien kids have plenty of origami and art-and-craft activities and turn out particularly in tune with the festivals and folktales that are part of their cultural heritage. “Kyoiku mamas” (educationally oriented mums) will put their kids in the most popular schools and then send their kids after school to preschool jukus or cram-schools (no seriously) to learn their math and hiragana, or to other special educational hourly private programs. In a positive light, you might say, the Japanese like their children to stay children a little longer. Naturally, kids love these types of “all-play” schools, but as a parent forking cash for three years of preschool, you may have other ideas. If you wish for a less wishy-washy educational philosophy, then it might be best to look for either Montessori or Steiner-type preschools (I hear there are quite a few in Tokyo, Yokohama and elsewhere in Japan).
- Non-Japanese mothers should be forewarned to expect wads and wads of pamphlets, questionnaires, info papers to be filled out from time to time, bazaars, and have to seek help from English-speaking mums for explanations for the many outings and meetings.
- Bus-ing I think is a great boon in the light of the unpredictable weather of Japan. The terrific bus phoneline (renraku) networking memo that is unvariably handed out to you is but one example of how well coordinated and closely knit the Japanese community is when it comes to handling disasters as well as community events. How else would you know that your kid doesn’t have to go to school today because of the floods or the approaching typhoon. In some yochiens, however, NOT having public transport is considered an important discipline and practical life lesson of the curriculum. Cooking daily lunchboxes can be a real drag or joy depending on your inclinations. The greatest feature of snob-appeal in yochien life is how aestheticly appealing one’s obento is (other than the prim-and-proper uniforms of mission school or private comprehensive system school kindergartens, that is).
- Physical environment. The best-rated schools are likely to have pleasant environments. However, few kindergartens in Japan have outstanding or out-of-the-ordinary or modern playground facilities (unlike the preschools in US and UK that outdo each other in terms of equipment and facilities in accordance with snob-appeal); they may have in fact the most rudimentary of equipment like a real tree and sandboxes.
- Cost. I had wrongly assumed that the most popular schools would be the most expensive ones, but Midori Yochien was a lot cheaper than nearly all the other preschools (both entrance fees and monthly tuition). Beware the hidden costs can really add up with the fancy uniforms, positively cool hats and sweaters or blazers, the Ralph Lauren-like school-bags, and to die-for art and craft-kits that some missionary yochiens bill you for.
- Class size and ijime mondai. Parents should also probably consider their kids’ temperaments whether they are shy and likely to be picked upon or whether they are gregarious like my son who begged to go to school. Yochiens in Japan tend to have huge sized classes (not classroom space but number of kids). Large classes are in fact preferred by local teachers since peer or crowd control technique is a characteristic of Japanese education. I don’t personally see how one or even two teachers can adequately supervise 30 or more mischievous boisterous kids. However, a neighbourhood mum I know said her daughter who had been to more than one yochien had said this one was her favorite. Her daughter liked the fact there were so many children hanging around classes and having lots and lots of friends. Her mum said that since there were always so many children waiting for the school-bus, her kid would become part of the circle of friends so that there was less likelihood of being bullied. When I asked the teachers what they did to discipline bad behavior, their reply was that they had to exercise fairness and that they use time-out. Japanese teachers often will not intervene in what they see to be normal spats and quarrels, believing that kids need to learn peer conflict resolution early on and to sort things out among themselves. A friend of mine who has an extremely shy son is delaying yochien entry tillnen-chu (second year) or nencho(third year).Other options:
- Hoikuen are day-care nursery facilities provided for mothers who cannot take care of their children during the day, either because they are working or for some other reason. Hoikuens are similar to Kindergartens and their aim is, as the name suggests, to prepare young children for elementary school. Children up to elementary school age are eligible to attend. They can be more expensive on account of the longer hours. I checked out a nearby Toyozomi Hoikuen and for all purposes the rooms, building and play yard were as decent as those of the yochiens I visited. They also tend to have more flexi-options like twice a week attendance or daily attendance.
- International schools. Costs of international schools are generally beyond the means of non-expat families. There are very few international schools outside of Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, and other cities where foreigners are usually concentrated. This is true of where I live too.
- Yoji rooms are run by the municipal ward are very cheap, just over a thousand yen per month with a guardian/babysitter. And it’s usually free if you just meet there to play with the toys with other mums. Mums just meet in a playroom with boxes of toys in a huge tatami room, and chat while their children play together. It is a good place to exchange info with other mums. This is where mums turn to when their kids are not ready for preschool or who can’t really afford three-year yochiens for several kids or whose husbands may be assigned elsewhere the next school year.
- Non-recognised unorthodox preschools. All the above preschools I visited were private ones, but recognised by the government. There was only one public one but public yochiens offer only one year of schooling. Sometimes, there are non-recognised unorthodox preschools. The Wakaba preschool in my vicinity is such a school and has an unusual approach. It houses kids in an ordinary apartment house and is said to be run like a barrack-cum-adventure-type school. Only kids interviewed and deemed to be outgoing and rugged were accepted. The schools’ activities centred around teaching real-life skills which included lots of nature walks, cooking, outdoor excursions, gardening, farming, learning to deal with the transportation system and like outings. It aims at developing independence and discipline in children.
- Special educational classes/programs for 1-6 year olds held on the premises of Sogo, Takashimaya and Ito-Yokado shopping centres. These tend to be good. Maximum class-size: 12. My son attended an hourly Mikihouse program at Sogo. Innovative right-brained teaching methods and vocabulary rich curriculum: puzzles, toys, puppet-story-telling, computer software, videos, song and dance,etc. Strict academic goals are maintained and teachers feedback conscientiously on your child’s progress. Registration fee: 5,000 yen, monthly: 6,800 yen. Be warned that the educational packet extras that are come with the programs can cost around 40,000 yen. If you homeschool in English and want your child just to get some Japanese language exposure, these programs may be ideal. The Shichida Academy is a particular famous institution that conducts classes for right-brained learning beginning from infant stages.
- Extracurricular activities: Calligraphy, music or gym classes can be good alternative activities if you’d like your kids to meet other Japanese kids. The Yamaha music schools which have a variety of rhythm and movement as well as instrumental classes for the preschool set (phone the Yamaha Music Foundation for the location of a school near you: 03-5773-0808 or see the Yamaha Music Foundation page in Japanese for locations). Costs are reasonable. Apple Rhythm classes are very well-known, not only provide rhythm & movement for tots and preschoolers, trampolines, crayon and craftwork to music, storytelling but also really do teach kids how to read music notes and have a good musical ear (available in various locations in Chiba). Finally, your kid can start to learn the piano and violin as early as three with the world-famous Suzuki method. The method maintains that before the age of three, a child can be prepared for music lessons by listening, observation and mimicking others. I called up the Suzuki office in Tokyo 03-3295-0270 and they were able to locate two teachers near my home. Do check out your local music store’s bulletin board, they tend to be jammed with messages from all sorts of music teachers offering their services.
The Lottery Schools! by Cornelia Kurz. Cornelia writes about her lottery attempt for entrance to the Ochanomizu Joshi Daigaku Fuzoku Yochien. If you haven’t heard about the infamous lottery ballot system to get into some yochiens, this is where you can read about it.
Hurray for Kindergarten!
This website has a long list of links to Kindergartens in Japan
Private Kindergarten Association, (Youchien.com In Japanese)
Kindergarten News Net (Youchien.net In Japanese)
Shichida Academy, This is mainly a early-childhood program – early elementary program dealing mainly with accelerating mental skills and right brain facilities. To know what it’s all about, read Signing Up for Dr Shichida’s Spy-Kids School?
Talent Education Research Institute, International Academy of the Suzuki Method, Talent and Music Education for the very young.