Bicultural families are on the rise in Japan. In 1970, less than 6,000 “international marriages” — where one partner is non-Japanese — were registered, or 0.5 percent of the total. In 2000, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported that one in 22, or 4.5 percent, of all marriages that year were between a Japanese and a foreigner. In Tokyo, it’s now one in 10.
Parents of bicultural children in Japan often find themselves in educational limbo when choosing where to send their progeny: the traditional state school or one of the numerous international schools. And although expensive, an international education should be considered a triple-A investment in their children’s future, as well as Japan’s.
It’s impossible to operate in the world today in isolation. Many international schools in Japan have as part of their mission the goal of creating global citizens.
Japan and its public schools tend not to be diverse — in fact, 98.6 percent of the student population is ethnically “pure” Japanese and 99 percent of them speak Japanese as their first language.
Looking to the future, if Japan is to compete in the global marketplace, it will need to diversify. And international schools have a valuable role to play in this process, says Sam Frearson-Tubito, admissions director at Tokyo International School. “International education gives the bicultural student an opportunity to experience and learn with many other ‘like students’ and open doors further to the international world.”
Fitting in is essential in Japan, and bicultural kids are not immune to this desire. The chances of doing so are considerably better at an international school. Schools like Tokyo’s Nishimachi International School and The American School in Japan (ASIJ) boast a student body comprising 20-25 percent bicultural students where one parent is Japanese. That number guarantees that students will interact with others like them, going through the same issues and challenges. Children who are comfortable in their own skin do better in school and don’t have to worry about social pressure to conform.
International schools provide choice in education. Not only can students opt to take a second foreign language; in a school like The American School in Japan, students have over 100 different co-curricular programs to choose from, from kindergarten to 12th grade.
“Students are limited in the Japanese school system — you can only be passionate about the extracurricular programs they offer,” explains Ed Ladd, the headmaster at ASIJ. “If you are a baseball player in Japan you choose a certain high school that focuses on baseball. At ASIJ, you can be the all-star goalie and get the lead in the spring musical.”
Bicultural children living in Japan most likely have Japanese family nearby. This extended family adds cultural enrichment to the child’s life and helps with their assimilation into Japanese society.
But there is another extended family to consider: that of the non-Japanese parent. They may live far away and only speak their native language. If the children are educated in the Japanese state system, their ability to communicate in the foreign language may be deficient — especially if the non-Japanese parent is at work for most of the day. The deep connection to these relatives may prove difficult to maintain. Education in an international school could help to alleviate this situation.
Many parents of bicultural children work for international corporations where transfers to other countries are a fact of life. If a child is educated in the Japanese state system, it may make the transition to another country very difficult. Although it depends where they end up, it’s most likely they will attend a school where English is the language of instruction. These children need versatility in their education to allow for an easy transition outside of Japan.
In addition, many parents choose an international education to give their kids the opportunity to study abroad after high school. Getting accepted at a university in America, the U.K. or Australia is more likely if the student has been educated at an international school in English.
But these bicultural kids also have the choice of attending university in Japan. Many bicultural students go on to study at Japanese universities such as Waseda, Sophia and Keio. In 2004 Waseda University launched the School of International Liberal Studies (SILS) with a multilingual bent focused on English. So even though they attended an international school, the choice to remain in Japan is not closed off after high school.
The current trend for Japanese high school graduates is to stay in Japan for university. “Once a voracious consumer of American higher education, Japan is becoming a nation of grass-eaters,” The Washington Post’s Blaine Harden noted in a 2010 article. “Undergraduate enrollment in U.S. universities has fallen 52 percent since 2000; graduate enrollment has dropped 27 percent.”
And yet total enrollment from China has climbed 164 percent in the past decade. When Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust visited Japan in March 2010, she met with students and educators who told her that Japanese young people are inward-looking, preferring the comfort of home.
Japan needs to turn around and look out — there’s a whole big world out there that they need to play a bigger part in. The more the population stays put, the more it will limit the country.
Bicultural children educated in international schools who go on to university outside of Japan and then return home will bring this diversity back to Japan. “My advice to young Japanese is simple: Get out of Japan,” advises Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing, in “Reimagining Japan: The Quest For a Future That Works.” “One of our weaknesses is our ineptness at communicating with other cultures.”
Rote learning — a technique focusing on memorization — is widely used in the Japanese state system. This method does not lend itself to creating out-of-the-box thinkers or leaders.
“Japanese students can recite facts but they often lack the analytical skills and resourcefulness that are crucial in today’s global economy,” warns Kumiko Makihara, a frequent contributor to The New York Times who writes of social and cultural trends in Japan, in “Reimagining Japan.” International schools pride themselves on providing an environment that encourages creativity and inquisitiveness, two ingredients necessary for innovation and leadership.
Heang Chhor, a senior partner and head of the Japan office of McKinsey and Co., sums up the challenge for Japan: “Future prosperity depends in large part on transforming education. The (Japanese state school) system produces too many graduates who are not especially useful to Japanese companies struggling to compete globally.”
For parents of bicultural students in Japan who yearn for their children to become global, inquisitive, passionate learners able to communicate with everyone in their extended family, an international school education is the right choice.
Lisa Jardine is a freelance writer and has four children, three of which attend ASIJ, the other UCLA. Send comments and story ideas firstname.lastname@example.org