Flexible and diverse, international schools thrive

Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008 Japan Times 

News photo
Second-graders at K. International School Tokyo in Koto Ward study during a class in December. AKEMI NAKAMURA PHOTO

Dressed in their dark blue uniforms, about 480 students from 50 nations listened one December morning to their teachers during a meeting in the school gym at K. International School Tokyo in Koto Ward.

International schools like KIST, with a diverse student body, have flourished in recent years. Begun as a kindergarten for foreign children in 1997, the school added elementary school education in 1998, junior high school programs in 2000 and high school classes in 2003.

Over the past 20 years, international schools have proliferated. And while the number of foreign children has increased, it is also the case that more and more Japanese are turning to international schools for their children’s education.

Meanwhile, other types of non-Japanese institutions, including Brazilian schools, are also on the rise.

“Non-Japanese schools have come to play a substantial role in (Japanese) society,” said Kimihiro Tsumura, an associate professor of second language learning at Hamamatsu Gakuin University in Shizuoka Prefecture. “The schools help (foreign children) receive continuous education, and some even provide support to those who failed to fit in at public schools.”

Currently in Japan there are roughly 35 international schools, about 100 schools for Brazilians and Peruvians and two Indian schools, in addition to 85 long-standing Korean and Chinese schools. And there are more to come.

In April, Korea International School will debut in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture. It will offer junior high and high school education in English, Japanese and Korean languages.

Global Indian International School will open its second school in Yokohama in 2008, and the Chiba Municipal Government also plans to set up an international school in April 2009.

Japanese students
The rise of non-Japanese schools appears to parallel the growth of the foreign community in Japan. The number of foreign residents under age 20 rose to 281,184 in 2006 from 242,382 in 1996, according to the Immigration Bureau. But education experts point to the popularity of international schools among Japanese as a factor behind the schools’ recent expansion.

“Many (Japanese) parents are dissatisfied with Japan’s public school system. . . . They’re worried that their children may not be able to obtain (sufficient) academic and English skills at Japanese public schools,” said Julia Masuda, a freelance journalist who has written three books on international schools in recent years.

They also want their children to experience a multicultural environment, so their children can better cope with global society in the future, Masuda said.

In fact, several international schools said they have enrolled more Japanese students in recent years, although some limit the number they will accept.

Takako Komaki, deputy director of KIST, said her school set a maximum ratio of students of any nationality at 30 percent to ensure cultural diversity. The current ratio of Japanese students at KIST is around 20 percent, she said.

Federico Sancho, headmaster of Yokohama International Christian Academy, said the ratio has risen steadily since the 1990s, noting 70 percent of its 100 students are Japanese, including returnees from abroad and children of international couples.

Japanese public schools should have the options available to international schools, which emphasize individual learning and multicultural education, Sancho said.

Because international schools do not have to follow academic guidelines set by the government, they can offer alternative education programs. And many are accredited by private organizations abroad, including the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the European Council of International Schools, the Association of Christian Schools International and International Baccalaureate Organization, which guarantee the quality of education.

A Japanese mother whose 8-year-old son goes to Aoba-Japan International School in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward said she and her American husband decided to send their son to the international school, hoping the program will help him improve his English proficiency and inspire him to become interested in various issues.

“I’m satisfied with” the school’s education, she said, although admitting that the high tuition and school-related expenses — roughly ¥2.5 million annually — are major concerns.

Brazilian schools
The number of Brazilian schools has also grown by leaps and bounds, from five in 1995 to about 100, partly due to the needs of Brazilian children who failed to fit into Japanese public schools, according to Tsumura of Hamamatsu Gakuin University.

Bullied and lacking Japanese language skills, many Brazilian children living in Japan drop out of Japanese public schools.

“Even Brazilians who were born and have been raised in Japan are dropping out of public schools,” said Elica Tozawa, director general of Nippaku Gakuen, a Brazilian school in Oizumi, Gunma Prefecture. The school, which has 185 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, accepted more than 40 Brazilian dropouts last year.

According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, as of May 2006, 70,936 foreign students attended Japanese public schools. Of them, 22,413 students, including the largest ethnic group of 8,633 children who speak Portuguese, needed language support to understand classes in Japanese.

Thus, many children of Brazilian origin appear to be taking refuge in Brazilian schools, where classes are taught in Portuguese.

Government subsidies
But Brazilian schools as well as many other ethnic schools face problems with their legal status. They are denied the government support enjoyed by Japanese and international schools.

For example, private Japanese schools receive large subsidies from the central and local governments. In fiscal 2007, subsidies per student at private elementary, junior high and high schools ranged from ¥250,000 to ¥360,000.

Although the amount they receive is much smaller, international schools designated by local governments as “miscellaneous schools,” the same status that many of Japan’s vocational schools enjoy, are also eligible to receive subsidies from local governments. In the case of Tokyo, international schools receive an average of ¥15,000 a year from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for each student whose parents are both foreign nationals.

In a bid to lure more foreign investment to Japan, the Finance Ministry in 2003 also began giving tax breaks to international schools that satisfy three conditions — holding “miscellaneous school” status, having students whose parents only stay in Japan on a short-term basis and accreditation by a designated organization. Currently, 15 international schools qualify.

On the other hand, most Brazilian schools receive no government subsidies, as they have yet to obtain the “miscellaneous school” status.

According to the education ministry, as of last May 1, 120 non-Japanese schools had “miscellaneous school” status — 79 for North Korean children, 31 international schools, four schools for Brazilian and Peruvian students, five Chinese schools and one South Korean school.

To qualify as a “miscellaneous school,” legal requirements must be met, such as owning school land and buildings and having assets worth half of their annual school operation expenses.

Hamamatsu Gakuin University’s Tsumura said the widening gap in public support shows the government only welcomes rich foreigners who bring in investments but does not see those who provide manual labor as important members of society.

“If we have enough resources to give a good education, such as good teachers, affiliation to a good and a reliable board of education and good study materials, owning property should not be a condition for acquiring the (miscellaneous school) status,” Nirmal Jain, president of Indian International School in Japan in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, said in an e-mail. The school has yet to obtain the “miscellaneous school” status.

Since 2004, the education ministry has instructed local governments to ease requirements for the status, but few have done so.

“The victims (of the lack of public support) are foreign children,” Tsumura said

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