My sons attended a group called Seikatsudan, which follows the Seikatsudan curriculum offered at Jiyugakuen (the Freedom School) in Hibarigaoka. Seikatsudan began more than 50 years ago, and many mothers/fathers of the children that attended with my sons also attended Seikatsudan themselves. According to these parents, Seikatsudan hasn’t changed at all over time!

There were many unique things about Seikatsudan. First of all, children met only once a week in the first year and twice or three times in the second and third years. Language-wise, it was probably not the best way for my boys to pick up Japanese; their ability in Japanese progressed slowly over three years. However, by their “graduation,” they could speak comfortably with their friends and teachers, and the transition to Japanese elementary school was very smooth.

The atmosphere at Seikatsudan was unlike anything I have witnessed anywhere else! The emphasis was on “children as leaders,” and children were encouraged to follow routines and remember basic tasks with as little guidance as possible from adults. (This was often a tough concept for a hands-on mom!) Children were offered ample time to think things out and complete their tasks — I was often amazed at how patient the teachers were with the kids!

Since the children met only once or twice a week at the actual school, they brought home reward charts to do on the other days at home. At first, the program seemed to me to require little commitment, with the other days at home wide open for other activities. Over time, especially with my second son I realized the importance of the simple life the school promoted, focusing on getting up/getting to bed early, eating four meals a day, making homemade food, etc.

The children also were responsible for taking care of animals: love birds in the first year, guinea pigs in the second year and homing pigeons in the third year. The final year was truly unique as the class raised baby pigeons and “trained” them to return to the school by taking them to parks and releasing them. (MOST of them made it back!)

One other thing that was unique was that the children all took “solfage” (do-re-mi) together at the school as well as piano lessons. One of the days that the children met was thus “music day.” For us, this was wonderful! Had we attended a regular kindergarten, I’m not sure that we would have had the time or made the time for piano/music lessons.

I suppose the last thing I should mention is that Seikatsudan required an enormous commitment on the part of the mothers. We had many responsibilities at the school — cooking lunch, deciding menus, taking care of animals, babysitting sibings, cleaning, setting up/taking things down, sewing …. Most of my friends thought I was crazy for continuing with such a regime, but over five years I
learned so much about myself, my kids, Japan, wa-shoku, people. I didn’t fully realize how intense the program was until my kids were finished!!

Seikatsudan, by the way, it is not a branch of any school. However, I think there are many similarities among alternative schools. Seikatsudan is also different from Tomoe Gakuen, the school that Totto-chan (Tetsuko Kuroyanagi) attended, as written in the book Little Girl at the Window. (A great read if you haven’t read it yet — my boys loved that story!)

Jiyugakuen (the Freedom School, grade 1 through high school and women’s college) and Seikatsudan (the “yochien” counterpart) were begun by Hani Motoko-sensei, an educator, journalist and Christian socialist, and her husband. At the same time, Hani-sensei also started the women’s group Tomo no kai, which still exists all over Japan today, and the monthly magazine Fujin no Tomo. Hani-sensei also wrote articles on child rearing and education, which were compiled into numerous books. These books are still widely read and used at Jiyugakuen and by Tomo no kai and Seikatsudan.

The original Jiyugakuen building, located in Mejiro, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Hani. The building became too small and the school was relocated to the Hibarigaoka campus. The original building, truly a work of art, still stands and is used for meetings and weddings; both my sons practiced for their undokai on the front lawn! Tours are also offered. You can see photos of the original building here: http://www.jiyu.jp/index-e.html

Seikatsudan has 14 locations throughout Japan (including one at the Hibarigaoka campus), mostly in larger cities such as Sapporo, Tokyo (Setagaya), Nagoya, Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka, etc. You can find out more information on the “program” and locations here: http://www2.ocn.ne.jp/~zentomo/seidan/dan.htm

I noticed that the Seikatsudan at Jiyugakuen in Hibarigaoka will change from meeting once/twice a week to every day (Monday to Friday) from next year. How sad that this changing … after almost 70 years! I know that some parents wanted their kids to have the chance to attend every day, but meeting once or twice a week was exactly the reason why I chose Seikatsudan rather than the local yochien or hoikuen.

— L. in Tokyo