Education options for expat families in Japan are plentiful – particularly in large cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. The suitability of these options may largely depend on factors such as the length of the expats' stay in Japan, their children's age, and their location.
- MEXT is the official Japanese government agency responsible for education, culture, sports, science and technology.
Public schools in Japan
In Japan, the Ministry of Education determines the national curriculum for public schools, although schools and teachers choose how to present the material. General subjects are taught in Japanese, though some public schools offer international tracks for expat students.
Assignment to public elementary and junior high schools is generally based on location, with the specifics varying by city. Merit-based admissions tend to be more common in large cities. Public high schools in Japan require entrance examinations and competition can be intense, but with ample preparation and resources, students can successfully navigate this process. Numerous preparatory schools and tutoring options exist to help students prepare for these exams, and many families find these resources invaluable.
The environment in public elementary schools is more relaxed, as one might expect from primary education. However, junior high and high school can quickly become overwhelming and stressful to students, potentially more so for foreign children who have not grown up in the system and are unfamiliar with the language.
Private schools in Japan
Private schools in Japan offer an alternative to the public system, with some schools enjoying a high level of esteem. Admissions to these schools can be competitive. Like their public counterparts, private schools adhere to the national curriculum as determined by the Ministry of Education but often have more flexibility in how they present the material. Some private schools offer international tracks, presenting a valuable option for international students.
Choosing a private elementary school is an option for parents who prefer this type of education for their children. Unlike public schools, which are generally assigned based on location, parents can select from various private schools. In certain cities, some private junior high schools operate based on an admissions system rather than location assignment.
Entrance examinations are a standard part of gaining admission to private high schools. The competitive nature of these exams can create a tense environment, but many preparatory schools and tutoring services are available to help students succeed. Private schools, similar to public ones, can become challenging for students as they progress, particularly for those not immersed in the system or the language from a young age.
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.
Admission requirements for international schools vary significantly among different institutions. For instance, some schools may require proof of proficiency in English if it isn't the child's first language. Tuition and costs also vary. Aside from basic tuition, there may be additional costs for uniforms, extracurriculars, field trips, bus services and even technology and building maintenance fees.
While tuition fees at international schools can be high, it's important to note that many schools offer various forms of financial aid, including scholarships and payment plans. Parents are encouraged to contact the schools directly to discuss these options and make an informed decision that best suits their family's financial situation.
Homeschooling in Japan
Homeschooling is another common option among expats in Japan. There are no specific legal provisions in favour of homeschooling, so it can be something of a grey area, but it's by no means an unsupported choice. There are active homeschooling communities and resources available in Japan for parents to plug into that can provide assistance and guidance.
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 schools for the middle grades subscribe 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
Japan's approach to special-needs education is inclusive and varied. For students within the public school system, support can range from accommodations within a general education classroom, pull-out sessions in special resource rooms, to more specialised classrooms depending on the child's needs. Services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and psychological services are typically available, although the availability can vary by location.
Children with severe disabilities may find dedicated special-needs schools more beneficial. These institutions, which are run by local governments, cater to students from kindergarten through 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 specific 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 student needs.
Tutors in Japan
Given the competitive nature of schooling in Japan, it's not uncommon for students to have multiple tutors, each specialising in a different school subject. Especially for expat children, having a tutor in Japan may be helpful. A tutor can assist a child in maintaining their mother tongue or helping 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. Although expats may be spoilt for choice, they should thoroughly research all options before choosing a tutor. Schools will also often recommend trustworthy tutors.
►Have a look at Accommodation in Japan to learn more about finding a home in the country
"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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