Education options for expat families in Japan are plentiful – particularly in large cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. These options largely depend on how long expats plan to stay in Japan, the age of their children, and their location.
Public and private schools in Japan
In Japan, the Ministry of Education determines the national curriculum, though schools and teachers choose how to present the material. General subjects are taught in Japanese, though some schools offer international tracks.
Elementary schools are generally assigned by location, though it's possible to choose a private school. Some private schools are highly esteemed with the result that admission is competitive. Public junior high schools are either assigned by location or admission based. This depends on the city and admissions are often more common in large cities. Public high schools require entrance examinations and competition is fierce.
Elementary school is more relaxed, as one might expect of primary education, but junior high and high school can quickly become overwhelming and stressful to students, and potentially more so for foreign children who have not grown up in the system and are unfamiliar with the language.
International schools in Japan
International schools are one of the most popular options for expat families in Japan. The accreditation systems and curricula of these institutions vary depending on the type of school and its country of origin. Most will teach in English, but some schools cater specifically to French, German, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean expats, as well as some other nationalities.
Many schools use an American-based curriculum, while some utilise the British or Canadian system. Some schools also incorporate a religious curriculum (typically Christian-based), but not all do so.
Admission requirements for international schools vary widely from school to school. Some require a certain level of English ability (if English isn't the child's first language). Tuition and costs also vary, though fees are typically extremely high. Aside from basic tuition costs, there may be additional costs for uniforms, extra-curriculars, field trips, bus services and even technology and building-maintenance fees.
Homeschooling in Japan
Homeschooling is another common option among expats in Japan. Though technically not illegal, there are also no specific legal provisions in favour of homeschooling, so it can be something of a grey area. Elementary and junior high school are compulsory in Japan, whereas high school is optional, so parents must request permission from their 'enrolled' school to homeschool their children. The 'enrolled school' is typically the school assigned based on the expat's address, but school for the middle grades subscribes to different appointments according to the specific city or district.
In principle, schools generally understand the situation and agreeing to the expat's request makes their job easier, particularly if the school does not have English support.
Special-needs education in Japan
The Japanese government is focused on creating an inclusive society in which educational needs are met for each individual student. In line with this, the vast majority of children with special needs are taught in regular public schools. The method of assistance in Japanese public schools will depend on the child’s disabilities and the severity thereof. Options range from being taught in regular classes to attending special resource rooms a few times a week, to special-needs education classes.
Children with acute disabilities may benefit from attending dedicated special-needs schools. These schools are run by local governments and have classes from kindergarten to senior high school. The curriculum in these schools is the same as in public schools, but they also have added activities that teach daily living skills.
Various international schools also offer support for certain conditions or disabilities, though usually at an additional fee. There are also schools following the Waldorf-Steiner and Montessori methods. These have a more flexible approach to education and are known to cater to individual students’ needs.
Tutors in Japan
Schooling in Japan is competitive. It’s therefore common for students to have multiple tutors for different school subjects. Especially for expat children, having a tutor in Japan may be useful. A tutor can assist a child to maintain their mother tongue or help them study Japanese. If a child is attending a school with a new curriculum, a tutor is an excellent way of catching up with what they are behind on.
Tutoring is popular in Japan, which has led to many tutoring companies popping up across the country. Though expats may be spoilt for choice, they should do thorough research on all options before choosing a tutor. Schools will also often recommend trustworthy tutors.
►See International Schools in Tokyo for a list of good international schooling options for expat kids in the city
"It’s tough to start out in Japanese schools if your kids are older and don’t know much Japanese. The best thing is to start in Japanese kindergarten – but be aware that non-Japanese children never fit in 100 percent in Japanese schools; it just isn’t possible. Get used to not fitting in – it’s not always such a bad thing!" US expat Di shares her experiences in Japan in her Expat Arrivals interview.
"There are excellent American, British, German and French schools in Tokyo." Read more of British expat Jonathan's Expat Arrivals interview about living in Tokyo.
Are you an expat living in Japan?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Japan. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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