Japanese vs International Schools: Which Will Work for Your Children?

Photo of Rebecca Callahan

Rebecca Callahan

Contributor to TokyoDev

The surprise is usually plain on their faces. “Oh! Your kids go to Japanese schools?”
“Yep,” I say. “Regular Japanese public schools.”
“So your husband is Japanese?”
“No, he’s an American too.”
“But do the kids speak Japanese?”
“They didn’t when we arrived. But the schools have been very supportive.”

This is also usually another surprise, whether I’m speaking to a Japanese person or a foreigner. Often the conversation ends there, or with a hopeful note of, “Well, if they’re young, it’s easy for them to learn…”

But sometimes a parent will really want to know: “Why Japanese schools, then? Why not an international school?”

It’s an unusual choice for an all-expat family to make. Neither my husband nor I spoke Japanese well when we arrived in August of 2022. Our children also, despite our best efforts with online Japanese lessons and textbooks, couldn’t say much more than “Kawaii!” (“Cute!”) and “Ringo ga suki desu” (“I like apples”). Despite these limitations, we decided to avail ourselves of the Japanese public school system, and it has been the right decision for our family.

But it might be easier to start with the reverse proposition: when should your family not bother with Japanese schools?

When international schools make sense

The Japanese public school system is working well for us, but there are cases where it would not be my suggestion for your family.

International schools in Japan come in a variety of flavors, from boarding schools with UK curricula, to bilingual or trilingual immersion schools for the children of returnees. All have different expectations, language requirements, goals, and price tags.

Let’s define an international school for this article as “a private school that uses a non-Japanese language (such as English or French) as an integral part of its curriculum, and is explicitly focused on creating a ‘global’ atmosphere for its students.”

Here are four scenarios in which I’d recommend international schools over Japanese ones.

1. You only plan to remain in Japan for a short while.

If you intend to return to your home country in five years or less, there’s not much point in completely disrupting your child’s education. While most international schools utilize British or American curricula, there are also schools that cater to Russian, Indian, French, and German students.

2. Your kids are about to enter, or are already in high school, and don’t speak, read, or write Japanese.

Asking your child to master enough Japanese in a year or two to pass a standard high school entrance exam might be more stressful than it’s worth. If your situation permits it, your children are probably better off continuing their secondary education in their native language, while studying Japanese on the side.

3. You’re not sure Japanese schools are a good fit for your child.

Bullying is a hot topic in most expat parents’ groups. The schools my children attend have taken a number of steps to mitigate any issues, including creating a pipeline for parents to report any concerns they have, and being quick to respond to children’s complaints.

Even aside from bullying, foreign students who look different and speak a different language will experience unique social pressures in such a homogenous country as Japan. Some sense of exclusion, of being different, is inevitable even in the most welcoming school environment.

You know your child best. If your child is extra-sensitive to their peers’ viewpoints, or hates to feel isolated or strange, an international school might be preferable for their long-term well-being.

In addition, while my family has experienced a great deal of flexibility and thoughtfulness from our chosen schools, the level of help you can expect varies widely. If your child has special needs, you will need to speak directly to the school districts in your area to determine what accommodations they can offer.

4. You can afford it.

There may be exceptions, but generally speaking, one thing international schools have in common is that they do not come cheap. A quick survey of international schools in Tokyo and Kyoto reveals yearly fees ranging from around 600,000 yen on the low end, up to 6,000,000 yen. 2,000,000 yen per year would be typical. It’s worth noting that these fees don’t cover everything, including required materials such as MacBooks or iPads.

There’s another, hidden cost to international schools: location. Most international schools are located in major metropolitan areas, particularly Tokyo, where the cost of living skyrockets compared to the rest of Japan. Limiting your job or house hunt to those areas served by an international school can limit your family’s opportunities as well as drain the bank account.

If you already plan on living in Tokyo, and cost is not a concern, a private or international school may suit your children’s needs. That being said, you may still wish to consider Japanese schools, especially if you plan to remain long-term or may relocate elsewhere in Japan.

Why we chose Japanese schools

Our situation, when we came to Japan in August of 2022, was almost the opposite of everything I’ve outlined above. We…

  • have no plans to leave. Exiting Japan is still a possibility, but we’d prefer to remain here long-term. It made sense to work on integrating our children into Japanese culture, and schools are the fastest way to do that.
  • have young children. When we arrived, our daughter was in kindergarten, and our son in second grade. They’re at a good age mentally to acquire Japanese and have time to master it before worrying about exams.
  • know our children can handle it. This isn’t their first experience in a non-English school: they briefly attended a small school in Mexico, where all classes were taught in Spanish. Culturally, the comparatively strict Japanese public schools have been a shock for them, but they were already accustomed to hearing another language in the classroom.
  • can’t afford to have two children in international schools. It wasn’t just about the tuition and fees, either, but the location restrictions. House-hunting for an expat couple with two small children, two dogs, and a shakuhachi player (my husband) meant that, despite the best efforts of several real estate agents, pickings were incredibly slim. It took us two months to find a house, and our search ranged all over Tokyo prefecture and into Saitama as well.

We actually scored quite a deal with our new home, and feel very lucky to have it. We might not have been so successful if we’d had to remain within a few kilometers of an international school.

Enrolling your child in a Japanese school

Japanese schools can be either public or private. A private Japanese school will have its own application requirements and guidelines, for which you’d need to contact the school directly. For public schools, the basic steps should be as below. Nonetheless, the actual enrollment process may vary from city to city, so you should be guided by your city hall and the schools themselves on exactly what you need to do.

Note that public elementary and junior high schools will accept foreign students even mid-year, but high school is not compulsory in Japan, and public high schools still require entrance exams. Some systems exist to ease the exam requirements for non-Japanese speaking students, such as the specialized quota system in Tokyo, but these programs are highly regional.

From kindergarten to junior high, enrollment should look something like this:

  1. Arrive in Japan with your children. Much of what comes next will depend on when you arrive. The Japanese school year starts at the beginning of April, so your priorities might be different depending on whether you arrive in February, or in October.
  2. Find housing. It won’t be possible to enroll until you have a fixed address that you have registered with city hall.
  3. Talk to city hall. The staff there can tell you, based on the location of your house, which schools your children are supposed to attend. They can also inform you about what Japanese language-learning support the city offers, as well as other potential benefits and programs for your children.
  4. Decide when your children will enroll. Your decision (and the advice of city hall) might be different depending on when you arrive. If you’ve come in October, which is mid-year for schools in Japan, the consensus might be to enroll your child at once. If you’ve arrived in February, you might be advised to wait until the next academic year begins in April.

    Although this should be discussed with the local education office, parents do have some leeway about when their children begin formal education in Japan. Homeschooling in Japan exists in a gray area. Theoretically, Japan’s compulsory education laws mandate that children between the ages of 6 and 15 must receive education from a recognized school. That being said, the law is interpreted very differently depending on the regional school board or even individual schools in question, and foreign families especially are almost always given a pass. A lengthy period of homeschooling might raise issues, but a short delay in enrollment, to finish online schooling or to study Japanese, is unlikely to cause problems.

  5. Meet with the schools and make a final decision. Depending on the neighborhood, you may or may not have a choice in which schools your children attend.
  6. Fill out the forms provided by city hall and your school. You’ll be expected to provide, at a minimum, detailed medical information and vaccine records for your child.
  7. Get physicals (健康診断, kenkou shindan) for your children. Many schools will arrange for physicals at the school itself, usually in March, but in some cases you may need to visit a clinic separately.
  8. Arrange for automatic withdrawals from your bank. Although some schools still accept cash, many have switched over to automatic withdrawals for lunch fees, etc. You may need to open a new account at a bank specified by the school. The school should give you instructions on this, as well as any paperwork you need to take to the bank.
  9. Buy uniforms, gym clothes, the required leather backpacks (ランドセル, ranseru), and other supplies such as bags for shoes and washcloths. Double-check this list to ensure your supplies meet the requirements. Much of what you need can be found at local stores or Daiso, but what you can’t is usually available on Amazon, although it may be more expensive. Some of these may be purchased in bulk by the school and provided for free, and that will usually be indicated on the supply list. Other items such as uniforms might be loaned to your children by the school, particularly if your children are beginning the term late.
  10. Download the app. It’s common for schools to use an app to send updates and announcements. The app can also be an easy way to give notice that your child won’t be attending due to illness, an appointment, etc.
  11. Send your child to school. Don’t forget to ask them to “Ganbatte!” (“Try your best!”)

Top six tips for navigating the Japanese school system

From here, I’ll be speaking more directly about our personal experience, as one example of what foreign families can expect.

We were fortunate in that we almost accidentally landed in Hachioji, the #1 city in Japan for immigrants. However, we also had no friends or family here when we arrived. Although we’d been studying Japanese, we’d only been in-country a few months when the kids started school, and struggled with even basic communication. You can imagine how nervous I was when it came time to enroll my children. I won’t say it wasn’t a stressful experience, but if I could bumble my way through it with little to no external support, I’m sure anyone can.

If you decide that public Japanese schools are for your family, here are my top six tips to ensure your child’s success.

1. Use the resources at city hall freely

You’ll be visiting city hall anyway, to register as residents. When I did so, the young man helping me realized I had two children and immediately sent me up to a higher floor to sign up for benefits and discuss the school situation.

We’d arrived in the middle of the school year. I asked the education department if we could delay my son’s enrollment until April, so he could finish his current online school program. They had no problem with that.

I returned two months before the start of school (February) to talk again and finalize our school selection. School selection may not be an issue in your area—we are actually located between two elementary schools, so the district officials said we could choose.

Not all city halls are created equally, but ours is a valuable resource. They offer translators on-site or via tablet, to help with the language barrier, and are happy to answer questions. I once lost an important piece of my daughter’s enrollment paperwork, and eventually had to go ask city hall for a replacement. (I didn’t organize my mail well. Learn from my mistakes, please.) They cheerfully provided one in just a few minutes, and also helped me fill it out.

2. Meet with the schools in advance

After speaking with city hall, we knew we didn’t qualify for state-sponsored daycare (保育園, hoikuen). That meant we needed to find a kindergarten (幼稚園, youchien) for our daughter.

City hall gave us a list of local kindergartens and daycares, but I found it easier to use Google Maps and locate kindergartens that way. We discovered several in our area, and sent them emails (in English, and Google-translated Japanese) explaining our family’s situation and asking to meet.

The first kindergarten we visited was prepared to accept my daughter after a trial period, but they didn’t seem thrilled to have an English-speaking student. The second kindergarten, by contrast, welcomed our daughter with open arms. They’d already had several foreign students before, and were keen to continue adding diversity to their kindergarten.

The principal of that kindergarten also happened to know the principal of one of our neighborhood elementary schools, and she suggested it would be a great place to send our son. Once we’d met with the elementary school staff, and had seen for ourselves how kind and gentle they were with our boy, we agreed it was an excellent choice.

You’ll be visiting the school in advance anyway—part of the enrollment process involves bringing the children to the school for physical exams and meetings in March, before the new school year begins. However, it’s a good idea to arrange an earlier, private meeting with school staff, to discuss language-learning options and get a feel for the school’s culture.

3. Get out your phone (and a filing cabinet)

The single biggest difference between a Japanese elementary school and an American one is the mountains of paperwork. Every day, our children come home with a new landslide of school announcements, lunch menus, schedules, field trip reminders, and more—and Google Translate only goes so far.

Often our phones deliver nothing but word soup, particularly when it comes to lists of supplies. “Honey, it says we need to provide a ‘single boiled fish glue,’ do you have any idea what that could actually be?”

That being said, we’d be absolutely lost without those translation apps. Unless you arrive in Japan with a solid grasp of kanji, you’ll absolutely need a little phone help.

But that’s just for what’s in the paperwork. It doesn’t account for cultural expectations that aren’t written down—like that my daughter needed to wear a specific “ceremony dress” for her entrance ceremony.

4. Make parent friends—ASAP!

I read the paperwork regarding the entrance ceremony several times, and nowhere did it mention a required outfit. If two friends hadn’t let me know that my daughter was expected to wear a specific “kind of like a school uniform, but not really” dress for the occasion, I would have had no idea.

That’s why making friends with other parents is truly my top tip for parents moving to Japan. We’re very fortunate to be good friends with another expat who has lived in Japan for 20 years, is fluent in Japanese, and has put multiple children through the local school systems. Frankly we’d be lost without her, and I do my best to bake her “thank you” treats as often as I can.

Also wonderful have been those Japanese parents who speak English, and who kindly help translate on the spot. One mother at my daughter’s kindergarten basically adopted me; she saved a seat for me at everything from sports day to the class play, and whispered ongoing updates so I’d understand what was happening. Again, there aren’t enough cookies in the world for allies like these.

But what if you aren’t lucky enough to have fellow expats or English speakers at your school? I highly recommend the Facebook group Parents with Kids in Japanese Schools. Parents there can help answer tricky logistical questions, as well as offer general support.

5. Don’t be afraid of the PTA (probably)

The PTA in Japan has a fearsome reputation, and I was concerned we’d be drafted for a lot of duties we didn’t have the time, or Japanese, to perform. Instead, the head of our elementary school’s PTA found me on the first day, introduced herself, connected with me on LINE (a chat app popular in Japan), and asked me to contact her if I ever needed help or had any concerns.

As it happens, we’re not the only expat family attending this school, and our particular PTA is committed to making the school a welcoming place for foreign children. We’ve got kids from America, China, the Philippines, and the Congo, so we don’t even all have a second language in common, but the PTA has worked hard to find ways to accommodate us. Special events are held for foreign families to meet up and support one another, and the staff is being trained in “Easy Japanese” to help ease communication.

Other than those foreign family events, and some school-wide votes on PTA measures, we’re not asked to do much. We do try to volunteer for those tasks that don’t require fluent Japanese, such as setting up tents for sports day.

6. Line up extra Japanese resources

I’ve been encouraged by the amount of language-learning support I’ve seen in our city’s schools—it’s much more than I expected—but it’s also clear to me that Japanese acquisition must primarily remain the parents’ responsibility.

Our city offers specific accommodations for Japanese learners: an aide who comes once a week to help with homework and questions, and after-school Japanese classes held at a central location. In addition, our school provides a computer and translation machines in the classroom, and my son has received extra Japanese lessons from the principal himself.

That’s the extent of the official support, and unfortunately we can’t take advantage of all of it. The after-school Japanese classes are far from our house; while the city offered to pay transportation fees, we don’t have the time for a long commute. My friend’s daughter did attend those classes, and successfully learned Japanese in a few years. However, she was a bit older when she started, and she admitted the double homework load was stressful.

Instead, we opted for our son to receive private, twice-weekly Japanese lessons online. We already knew an excellent Japanese teacher, but there are scores available on sites like Preply, for a range of prices.

Other, cheaper alternatives to private lessons include:

  • Language exchange with another parent – “You help my kids with Japanese, I’ll help yours with English”
  • Hiring an older student to help with homework
  • Japanese language learning apps and games
  • Kid-oriented Japanese textbooks such as this one

The results so far

There’s a tendency to magical thinking in language acquisition. Many people I talk to assume that our children will easily and swiftly pick up Japanese just because they’re surrounded by it all day. Certainly the immersion helps, but it’s not enough by itself.

I also underestimated how much English our children would still be exposed to in school; there are enough foreign and returnee children in our area to ensure that my kids can always find an English-speaking friend. That’s wonderful for them socially, but not ideal for their language acquisition.

Both are learning Japanese, just not quite as quickly as we’d dreamed. On the whole, however, we’re satisfied with their education and assimilation so far. We also know that they’ll still need extra support for years to come. Our job as parents is to ensure, not only that they’re getting extra Japanese tutoring, but that we’re helping them learn the cultural expectations of their teachers and peers.

That also means doing our best to learn those expectations ourselves—and to keep up with the mountains of paperwork!

Conclusion

Sending your children to Japanese schools can be a daunting prospect, but there is more support available than you might expect. The education system is changing to be more accommodating to foreign families and Japanese learners. Just how supportive the school system is will depend on where you live, but with new government initiatives and the widespread availability of online resources, even a tiny rural school can make the situation work—especially if parents are willing to meet them halfway.

More about the author

Photo of Rebecca Callahan

Rebecca Callahan

Contributor to TokyoDev

Rebecca Callahan is a narrative designer and editor living in Japan. In 2015 she founded Callahan Creatives, a writing agency specializing in storytelling for brands and IPs. She enjoys making cool things with cool people, and drinking way too much coffee.

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