I’m writing this post as a prelude to the post about N-school which you can read here. It turned out to be a monster of a post, so I thought it would be better to split them. As we have not gone the traditional Japanese education system route, often people want to know why we decided on the school choices that we took.

I’ll go through what Japanese public schools look like and then what we decided to do at each stage and why.
We don’t have any kind of Montessori school nearby for any level of education, but we have always followed the child when it came to making the decisions and we included Ebi-Kun in the decision-making process.

Types Of Kindergarten

It is very unusual for young children not to go to kindergarten in Japan.

There are two types of kindergarten. The first is youchien, where kids attend for either 2 or 3 years. The types of youchien vary greatly and it’s best to visit a few to see what fits with your family philosophy. Some are very educational based with the kids doing lots of bookwork, others are more play-based and the kids might not study reading and writing at all. There are also International or English-speaking youchiens.

They also vary greatly in size and set-up. Although there are regulations in place regarding the number of students per teacher etc. Most try to prepare the kids for Japanese elementary schools.

Usually, kids attend from around 9 AM to 3 PM, again this varies from place to place. As do the lunch rules, some require a bento, others feed the kids with meals made at the youchien.

The second type of kindergarten is hoikuen. This is kids of working parents, both parents have to work and there are various rules about being able to apply. In the city, hoikuen spots are well sought after and often come down to where you can get a place rather than a desire to get into a specific hoikuen.

Kids can attend hoikuen from 6 months (depending on the place) up until elementary school. Additionally, they extend the operating hours and provide overnight hoikuens for people who work shifts.

The kindergarten we chose…

My son went to a Shinto yochien. The kindergarten was within the Shinto shrine grounds. We are not religious as a family and Shinto is more of an umbrella of religions, there is no religious book like the Bible or Koran. The Shinto philosophy fits beautifully with Montessori with a big emphasis on respect for other people, nature, and things. They also had some special activities because it was part of the shrine.

japanese kindergarten mikoshi festival

He went by bus, they alternate the bus times each term which was a little frustrating because we would get into a good routine, and then it would all change again, but on a whole it was good.

His school uniforms were a blue smock and hat worn to and from youchien and any special occasions. Other than that he wore blue shorts all year round, no socks (which probably explains why he hates wearing them now), and then any top was ok but character tops (such as Thomas or Peppa Pig) were frowned upon.

In the photo you can see 2 badges, the pink was his bus badge to make sure he got on the right bus at the right time. The green one was his name and class badge. The bag wasn’t his school bag, he was modelling my Steggie Backpack for the pattern I had made! (you can get the pattern here).

I didn’t have to make a bento unless they were going on a trip. He did need to take in either rice or bread but the rest of the meal was made on site. They used as much of the veg grown on the grounds as possible. It was a good, healthy, homemade meal. We got the menu each month.

small boy eating kintergarten lunch, meal and potatoes, rice and melon

There was a big emphasis on creativity, and critical thinking. They had a clay room, which was real clay, not playdoh. Each year, they create a sculpture for the annual art exhibit. They also did recycle sculptures and lots of painting. For the art exhibit, they turn the entire school into a gallery. All the walls are covered in brown paper and all the kids’ artwork is put up on display.

art display at the kindergarten

Another thing I liked was the way that special needs education was addressed. The youchien had a couple of special needs children and they got the help that they needed but also the class were responsible as a collective with helping and encouraging anyone who needed it. I have heard horror stories to the opposite, so this again, might be something specific to the youchien.

There was also lots of outdoor play, it had a good sized school grounds and they spent time learning about animals. They had quite the menagerie! Each class had their own pet such as a rabbit or guinea pig but they also had chickens and peacocks!

Every morning when the children arrive, they go to all the animals and say good morning and before they leave, they say goodbye and thank you, that includes the shrine, staff, and vegetable patch too. Although Japan doesn’t appear to be heavily religious compared to some countries, they ingrained a lot of it into Japanese children from an early age.

The one thing I wasn’t much of a fan of was the PTA. As someone who hates time-wasting and faffing around, I found each meeting pretty painful! They did have mothers’ circles too where they would meet to learn to sew or discuss books or whatnot, which was a great way to meet other moms and make friendships. I appreciate the intention but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. For many moms, kindergarten and school become the focus of daily life.

I was also teaching at a little Montessori farm school at weekends, so Ebi-Kun would join us for that too. Unfortunately, the 3/11 Tohoku disaster ended up forcing the school to close.

Elementary Education In Japan (Shōgakkō)

The Japanese school year starts in April. Kids start school when they are six and graduate at 12. There are 6 grades and this is standard across the country. They have 9 years of compulsory education. They can legally leave after Junior High but most go on to High School. There are some schools, even kindergartens that are associated with universities and/or high schools, so that once the child enters, they go through the entire system for that school. This means they get to skip the entrance examinations to the higher education institutions. These tend to be private schools and in the big cities. We have nothing like that near here.

Usually at public elementary schools lunches are provided. We pay, but it is inexpensive. Those who can’t afford to pay get subsidised by the Japanese government. The nice thing about this is that the kids themselves are not aware if their friends can afford to pay or not. No shaming of the ‘poor kids’. We got the menu through each month and a nutritionist visited the class each month to talk about what goes into the meals and why.

There was no school uniform at our school other than the sports kit and lunch outfit. The kids serve the lunch and so they wear a white hat and coat plus a mask when actually serving the food. Most public elementary school don’t have a uniform but private elementary schools do.

Although not compulsory, all the kids use a randusal bag. It’s a specific design and a rite of passage. I must admit I balked at the price when we bought it but it lasted all 6 years and was still in a great state by the time he had graduated. if he hadn’t snapped the strap 2 weeks before he finished! It was covered by a warranty for the full 6 years so if it hadn’t been at the end of the year we would have got it fixed properly. In recent years, the randusal bags have become more fashionable. Originally they were available in black for boys and red for girls, but now you can get them in every colour and with fancy stitching and personalisation.

He is all dressed up for his entrance ceremony here.

japanese boy wearing a randsal backpack and a big smile

The commute to school for Japanese elementary school students

People are often shocked at how kids going to school in Japan are so independent. This is different for each school. Both of our town’s elementary schools have the same system. The kids have to walk to and from school and wear a uniform yellow hat on their walk. If an accident happens and they are not wearing a yellow hat, they are not covered by insurance.

There is no school drop-off, the only exception would be for a child that is unable to walk and this rule doesn’t always stand in rural areas.

The kids are put into walking groups by the school. In the morning each group meets, the oldest child is designated as the group leader and walks at the front. The next oldest is second in command and walks at the back, making sure there are no stragglers. They walk to school together, in their group along a designated route. If a child is going to be absent a note is passed to the head of the walking group and they are responsible to hand it in to the absent child’s form teacher.

In the morning, parents “volunteer” (they call it volunteering but you have no choice but to do it) to be on flag duty. It was about once a term for me, I had to stand on a specific corner and watch the kids cross the road safely.

Coming home, the finishing time for school is staggered depending on the kid’s grade. The younger ones still have to walk home in their groups and there are city volunteers doing the flag duty on the way home.

For extra safety, several houses along the route are designated as safe spots and have a badge on their gate indicating that the kids can call there for help if they ever need it.

Graduation day with his trusted yellow cap which made it through all 6 years of elementary school and the same bag….

boy in shirt and tie graduating japanese elementary school

Why we chose regular Japanese school

Although I do not like or agree with the teacher-led, Victorian-style classroom set up, we did believe it was important for our son to not only be fluent in Japanese, but to learn all the nuances of being a Japanese citizen. Something I couldn’t teach him. So we decided the regular Japanese school system would be the best bet, although it didn’t serve him that well academically.

Because we have always done Montessori at home, he was well ahead with most subjects, especially maths. English lessons were totally pointless. What he figured out fairly early was that he could do his homework in class after he had finished classwork. For the final 3 years, he rarely bought homework home!

He wasn’t challenged academically at school and so we often did project work and learning outside school too.

School holidays are much shorter than they are back in the UK especially as there are no half-term breaks, and… in the summer break there is summer homework! As we usually go back to the UK for the summer, we made sure he did all the homework before we left.

All in all, he had a great experience at the school. We did have a bumpy start with some bullying that I talked about here. That said, the school dealt with it well, which can’t be said for all Japanese schools.

Junior High School in Japan (chūgakkō)

Junior high is for ages 12 to 15 and a lot more focused on academics. After-school activities “club activities” tend to be hardcore and there is a big emphasis on preparing to enter high school.

After years of teaching kids, I noticed a huge transformation in kids who moved up from elementary to junior high. They would go from fun, learning-loving kids to zoned-out zombies. Many were doing student clubs, which meant training before and after school and at weekends. Plus homework and juku (cram school). They were exhausted and had the love of learning knocked out of them.

Issues with bullying and teen suicide are also a problem for junior high school in Japan and due to the long hours they put in at school, there is a breakdown in family relationships.

Before we ever even thought about having kids, I was adamant that no kid of mine would be going through that. I don’t believe it is a healthy system and teens who are going through enough with their hormones and growth don’t need all that extra pressure and stress.

When Ebi-Kun was in about 4th grade at elementary school we started looking at the different options.

We ended up choosing Study Sapuri which was an online program that followed the national curriculum. He was able to study at his own pace which left plenty of time for other studies and fun stuff. He took up indoor climbing, so we would go to the gym a couple of times a week. (I would take my laptop and work from there).

When he first started we sat down and worked out how many lessons for each subject he needed to do each week and created a schedule on Asana so that I could keep an eye on where he was up to. He was really good at sticking to the plan he set out and ended up finishing three years of study in less than two years. The following year he reviewed anything he felt he wasn’t 100% sure of and started on the high school curriculum.

He also took courses on Outschool, Masterclass, Coursera, Khan Academy, Skillshare, Spanish and French in Duolingual and a few just random things that popped up and piqued his interest. He did LOTS of cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, programming, aikido, and read like it was going out of fashion!

Pros and Cons of homeschooling in Japan

The upside of all this was the flexibility, being able to study what he wanted when he wanted. It helped him become more responsible for his learning and he had a say in what he learned. He often discovered something, such as game theory, and would spend hours learning more about it at a much deeper level than he would have been able to at regular school.

It took some trial and error to get into the swing of working and homeschooling at the same time, but it all fell into place quite painlessly. There was even a big plus in that he started helping out more around the home with the housework and cooking meals.

The downside was the socialisation. I hate having to say this because this is the thing anti-homeschoolers bang on about. I think if we had homeschooled outside of Japan it would have been very different. The culture here means that homeschooling isn’t widely accepted and often kids are classes as school refusers.

There are NO homeschool circles where we live, so that part was tough. He did make friends at the climbing gym and with people online and of course, when he started his 3rd year of homeschool it coincided with the pandemic. Although he didn’t get much socialising done with kids his age, he did become far more confident when it came to interacting with adults, which is something I think many Japanese students struggle with.

It turned out that homeschooling was a great choice because it did not affect his studies and my work in the slightest.

teenage boy in blue t-shirt and black jogging pants, indoor bouldering

The legalities of homeschooling in Japan

Legally children have a right to education until they graduate junior high.

My son is Japanese (and British) and so the laws are different for kids here who are not Japanese. Basically, if you are not Japanese, the Ministry of Education doesn’t care how you school in Japan. For us, we had to register/declare at the city hall that we intended to homeschool. We also had to be registered at the local junior high even though he never set foot in the place.

Twice a year my husband would go into the school for a quick meeting and that was that. We were given copies of all the textbooks, which were deemed useless as he had already completed the work by the time we got them.

He did get a graduation certificate to say he had completed junior high.

What does concern me is that there was no checking if he was actually studying and learning, which wasn’t a problem for us, we were guiding him with his studies but I can see a lot of less fortunate kids falling through the cracks.

High school in Japan (kōtōgakkō)

High school is three years of education, 15-18, and not compulsory, although most kids do go onto high school in Japan. They might pick a community-type college or trade school instead.

Typically there is an entrance exam to enter high school, hence all the pressure at junior high. Third grade at junior high is often to prepare for the high school entrance exams.

In this post, I go into detail about the route we are taking for high school, I have had lots and lots of questions about this, so it needed a post of its own! N-school is not your typical school. If you don’t love the teacher-led class system, you will love this!

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me over on Instagram or in the Moms That Rock group on Facebook.

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