Homeschooling in Japan

 

 

 

Our Homeschooling Stories

 

In this section, I'll post your stories of home learning in Japan. Please help others by sharing your experiences - send your contributions to Angela. Thanks!


 

Leaving the School System: How we did it and what we have learned so far

Getting through the town council and jr. high bureaucracy was an experience I would avoid if I could! Nobody in the administration could make a decision without asking a lot of other people, who were all reluctant to say anything for fear of offending the ones who had asked...and so it went. A series of miscommunications between the Council and the schools resulted in my son being registered without our consent and announced as "absent" at the entrance ceremony. The school even had a desk for him! It was quite embarrassing. Because of this blunder however, we were given a full set of textbooks! The Council kept arranging big meetings which seemed to annoy all the participants to no end! Everyone finally came to agreement on allowing us to homeschool IF we used an "umbrella" school. So, I registered with an American group that was affordable and flexible - how credible they are is questionable but I really don't care. I paid the fee and they agree to keep a transcript. Their letter of registration was sufficient to get the adminstrators out of our lives...at least for the year. As long as we are registered officially somewhere, my husband cannot be punished for not sending our child to a Japanese school. We must submit proof of registration at another school each year. If I had known that, I would have done it in the first place and maybe never had to meet with them or try to explain homeschooling at all.

A note to potential homeschoolers: We filled out a questionnaire sent by the elementary school informing them of our intent to homeschool and we assumed this was sufficient notification. It was NOT! If you plan to change schools or not register in the public schools, be sure that all the principals hear from you personally and don't rely on their internal communications!

So we started our program... Since some of the members of this list have young children and are still considering homeschooling, I will say what we have gone through to give you some food for thought! My son was in public school here for 6 years, a top student with many accolades, well-liked, very verbal, fluent in Japanese and English, with good reading skills but poor writing ability in English. I had many concerns during his schooling but since I am not Japanese nor fluent, I tried not to interfere too much. I tried to point out certain problems but my son would become very upset if I criticized his teacher or the curriculum, since he was trying to be a good student in that context. My husband (Japanese) now regrets that we did not interfere more now because it seems that my son did not learn as much as we thought.

My son developed strategies for surviving "the system"; he can pass standardized tests without knowing the material; he can spend hours preparing required materials without understanding it. We are spending most of our time now re-learning basic study habits, how to ask questions, how to organize thoughts, how to read for understanding. He was in the habit of doing just what the teacher said. For example, if the teacher didn't say a certain fact was important, then my son disregarded it. He focused on doing what the teacher required and nothing more. His teacher was very competitive and wanted his class to be highest ranking on test scores, so his aim was to score not to educate. I was not aware that my son was ignoring so much of what he studied. After graduating from 6th grade, we discovered that his teacher had not actually read many of his papers over the last 2 years. If the kids made a good effort, filled up the page, they made the grade. However, now we found many mistakes in kanji, writing style, grammar etc. that were left uncorrected. Why? The teacher was too busy and he says the kids will learn those things later. Writing was not important! Neither was reading or world history or discussion or asking questions or communicating. My husband is shocked at the kind of teaching that has gone on and ashamed that we did not do more to intervene. He is now totally against the public school system (and finally understands my years of criticisms!) But school bashing is not productive either (so I keep my husband on a tether!):)

Now, of course, schools vary from place to place, as will teachers. We are in a small conservative town and my son had only 3 teachers over 6 years in a school of 2 classes per grade. There wasn't the variety that you might find at a larger school. My son might just be a bit strange too! He is a diligent student and I've never had to remind him to do anything, but he has a lazy bone when it comes to finding out what he doesn't know, his curiousity is burned out, his logical and critical thinking skills are dull! My husband regrets not starting homeschooling sooner and would like to take my daughter out now but even I can't agree to that. She loves school basketball and it would break her heart to miss out playing with the team. There is no other alternative for her so I am keeping her at the school for that. Her schedule is very demanding so she has little time for "after-schooling" therefore we may have to go through this same trauma all over again! Re-educating my son is tough on both of us but he now has more hopes and dreams than before and that motivates him to make an effort and follow my suggestions. He is making progress. But I admit, I was not prepared for the kind of "unschooling" "re-educating" that I have had to do. I only hope I have the patience to keep it up! As a reference: we are using Z-Kai studies for Japanese, Japanese composition, and math. We use Sonlight and a lot of supplements for other subjects which I teach in English.

I'm always interested in other people's experiences...hope to read more anecdotes from the group. Thanks again to everyone who has helped us get this far!

Karen Nibe and family, Kumamoto


 

Homeschooling in Japan: Our Arrangements with the Local School Authorities

Editor's note: The following article originally appeared in "Bilingual Japan," Vol 12 No 5 (Sept/Oct 2003), pages 16-18.

My daughter, Emily, has dual (Japanese/US) citizenship and she is a native speaker of her two first languages, Japanese and English. Emily homeschooled bilingually when we lived in the US, and now she homeschools bilingually here in Japan. In between, however, she attended a national-university-affiliated elementary school in Japan for three-and-a-half years. On three prior occasions I wrote [for "Bilingual Japan"] about Emily’s education, both about homeschooling in the US and about her Japanese school experiences: May/June 1996 (v5, n3), Nov/Dec 1998 (v7, n6), and May/June 2000 (v9, n3). Emily also has written about her own experiences as a homeschooler (July/Aug 2002; v11, n4).

Here in Japan, because homeschooling is not as common as in some Western countries, there is still relatively little information available on home education, particularly for families with children who have been in the Japanese school system and wish to bow out. In addition, many Japanese administrators seem to be unaware of homeschooling as an educational option in Japan, or else as I have come to suspect, they may be remiss about sharing information concerning homeschooling, possibly for fear of encouraging more families to opt out of the public school system.

This article explains the arrangements my wife and I worked out with our local school authorities so that our daughter could homeschool in Japan. I hope this information may be of some help to other parents who are interested in exploring homeschooling as an educational option for their children.

First, A Little Background
As I mentioned, our daughter attended a Japanese national university affiliated elementary school for three-and-a-half years, completing the sixth grade in March 2002. When it came time to decide what to do for her junior high school education, we first considered the school options here in Matsumoto, of which there were only two. First, there was the junior high school attached to the same national university, for which enrollment would be automatic for Emily since she had attended the affiliated elementary school. And then there was municipal junior high school. In our area, there are no international schools or private junior high schools.

Already at the time of my May 2000 article (Emily was then in fifth grade), my wife and I were looking ahead to Emily’s junior high education and we had serious concerns about the municipal junior high school. Since we were fairly certain Emily would not attend the public school, it seemed that her only real option was continuing on at the university-affiliated school. However, because the junior high schoolday is very long and the extracurricular obligations for the children can be so great and time-consuming, my wife and I were worried about the overwhelming emphasis such schooling would place on Japanese, and what that would mean for our daughter’s English.

First, my wife met with the school principal to discuss a part-day schooling arrangement, and the principal was open to the idea. A part-day arrangement meant that Emily could take only those classes she wanted, and she would be free for the rest of the school day to homeschool in English. The principal had one condition, however: Emily would need to make a clear statement to the school about her schedule, and explain to her classmates her reason for attending school only part-time. Emily came back with a resounding “No thanks!” She did not want to be seen as getting preferential treatment since it might lead to jealousy or possibly even to bullying from her classmates. For her, it had to be either full-time school or no school at all. We discussed the situation further as a family and decided to homeschool.

Initially, Emily’s sixth grade teacher seemed supportive of our plan to homeschool, and he even offered to help by approaching the local school board (kyoiku iinkai) on our behalf. When we met with him again several weeks later, however, the message he relayed from the school board was very blunt: “Homeschooling is not permitted in Japan." Knowing that the school board’s statement was incorrect, we just smiled and said we’d think about what to do – even though we knew we would homeschool. In the meantime, Emily did not turn in the paperwork necessary for progression to the university-affiliated junior high.

At that point, we were aware of only two ways of dealing with Japanese educrats regarding homeschooling. The first, which I will call the “tatemae approach,” would involve enrolling our daughter in the local junior high school, although she would not attend. Several Japanese homeschooling families who had taken that approach told us that it is the most common way of homeschooling in Japan, and that this approach has two major advantages. First, if Emily wanted to, she could still participate in activities at the local school, such as classes, clubs, special events, etc. In addition, she could graduate with a junior-high diploma – even without attending school. One Japanese homeschooling acquaintance said that her daughter never once set foot in school, yet graduated. We were warned, however, that there is also a large unknown factor in this approach. In the best case scenario, the local school officials would simply leave us alone. On the other hand, they could contact us and make demands, such as requiring conferences, counseling appointments and home visits, as well as insisting that my wife and I serve on school committees.

The other approach my wife and I considered (but only very briefly) is what another Japanese homeschooling acquaintance calls the “guerrilla approach.” That would have meant not registering with the local school, but rather waging our own independent war with the authorities in order to homeschool.

It was then I learned from a homeschooling acquaintance in Japan that there is an educational by-law exempting children from the compulsory school requirement, 学校教育法第二三条(gakko kyoiku-ho nijusan-jo), as well as a special exemption form known as 就学免除願 (shugaku menjo negai). The form is apparently the same one that parents of children attending international schools and other non-government institutions complete.

In March 2002, the local school board sent us a postcard informing us of the date by which we were to enroll our daughter in the local public junior high school. When the postcard came, we contacted the local school board directly and stated that we intended to homeschool. We explained that our daughter was a US citizen (we neglected to mention that she was also Japanese, although I think they knew) and we said that we wanted to emphasize our daughter’s English-language education. We presented this verbally to the school board and asked for an exemption form. They agreed to look into it and to get back with us.

In their verbal reply, they agreed to consider our situation, provided we submit a written request, not for an exemption (免除 menjo) but for a “deferment” (猶予\plainyuyo), using a request form which they would provide. In addition, we were asked to submit proof of enrollment in a school or in an education program.

Up until this point, nothing had irritated me. However, being told that we would have to apply for permission to educate our own daughter got me a bit hot under the collar. So did being told that we were required to enroll her in a school. We had successfully homeschooled for three years in the US – totally free and government intervention. We had created our own curriculum and used a wide variety of our own materials, and that was how we had planned to proceed in Japan. Furthermore, the term “deferment” also gave me some concern. My wife, however, calmly reminded me that our desire was to homeschool our daughter, not to do battle with the Japanese school system over the finer points of terminology or about my American-bred notion of rights. And so, after reflecting on the situation, I realized that this was not worth fighting over – provided the school board would leave us alone. Moving ahead with our daughter’s education was far more important than some petty and protracted legal wrangling.

Initially, we considered enrolling in one of the well-known US-based homeschool programs, such as Clonlara, Oak Meadow, or Calvert, but we finally decided on a very simple umbrella school known as West River Academy (WRA). As the school’s literature explains, WRA is designed for families who desire the benefits of private school enrollment with minimal oversight of their educational activities. Families may follow the curriculum and/or learning style of their choice, or may receive assistance in designing or choosing a program that fits their needs. Grading of students is optional, and no testing is required.

WRA sounded perfect for us, and we immediately signed up. Tuition is only US$45/year, and enrollment in this fully-accredited independent private school in Colorado includes records, for which our daughter submits a year-end report about her studies, activities, and progress. Most importantly, WRA also provides a letter of confirmation of enrollment – which is exactly what we needed to satisfy the local school board.

In late March 2002 we submitted the deferment request form, along with a letter of enrollment from West River Academy and a Japanese translation of the letter. We were not asked to show a curriculum or any materials that we would use. In May, the local school board sent us an official letter in the mail: 「就学猶予\u-26536 願いの受理及び承認について(通知)」(“Notification regarding the receipt and approval of request for deferment of school enrollment”). At the bottom of the letter was written the following comment: 「アメリカ合衆国の中学教育に準ずるため」 (“in order to follow a US junior high school education”). The deferment is good for three years, from April 1, 2002 until March 31, 2005.

Our daughter has been homeschooling in Japan for over one year now. She has a very active and rich life, combining many activities both at home and in the community. She also uses both English and Japanese in a wide variety of situations every day. In short, things are going well.

In addition, we are on good terms with the local school board. They even contact us each year to remind us that Emily is entitled to free Japanese-language textbooks. We simply fill out a special textbook request form, 就学義務猶予\u20813 免除者教科書給与申\u-30005 請書 (shugaku gimu yuyo menjosha kyokasho kyuyo shinseisho) and turn it in by mid-May. In July, we receive notification of approval from the school board, and the textbooks arrive in August – a little slow, perhaps, but still very nice.

Dave Carlson, Matsumoto


 

Following Our Children’s Lead

Written in March 2004 for Bilingual Japan’s Educational Options column. This was written for an audience interested in ways to manage bilingual education but not necessarily familiar with homeschooling so many of the intricacies and details of homeschooling as a lifestyle were not included.

A Bit of Background

I am American and my husband is Japanese. We have two children, an 8 year old son, Noa, and a 5 year old daughter, Maya. They have lived their whole lives in Japan except for a yearly visit to The States, which usually lasts in the vicinity of a month.

We have raised our children bilingually from the start using the one-parent-one-language approach, more or less. Both languages have progressed simultaneously but require that we stay alert and aware of which language may need more of a given type of input at any given time. We constantly rearrange elements of our lifestyle (usually activities the children are involved in) to accommodate their language and educational needs.

Schooling, or The Lack Thereof

From even before our son was born I had had an interest in homeschooling. The idea was totally new for my husband. We both readily agreed that nursery school was not something we were interested in for our children. I attended a few oyakokai (mother and child group) type activities with my son until he was 3 years old and everyone else went off to yochien. At this point I was lucky enough to find a jishuhoiku (自主保育independent education group that met in a somewhat nearby park three days a week. Basically this was a mother run cooperative alternative to yochien. We hired a hoikusha (caregiver/playmate) who filled the constancy role as well as a non-parent perspective role. The mothers all rotated being on duty as well. We met outside no matter what the weather. The philosophy was rather free form in which the adults played the role of protecting a child-led environment, watching out for the children’s safety and growth while leaving much of the decisions regarding activities up to them. My daughter participated whenever I was on duty the first two years as well as on her own, even on days I was not on duty, the last year we remained full members, when she was 4. This gave them both time away from Mommy to grow under the protection of other like-minded adults.

Both the oyakokai and jishuhoiku groups were completely Japanese. I was the only foreigner and my children the only doubles. Until Noa was about 3 years old I would use Japanese with him when we were in a purely Japanese environment except when the words came faster or more easily for me in English. But during the jishuhoiku years I made a point of talking in English with my children whenever I was talking directly to them even if others were present. This is what I still do now. If others are involved in our conversation then I might say something first in English to my children and then to everyone in Japanese or I might skip the English, depending on my mood, the situation, and which language I happen to be thinking in at the moment.

Unfortunately, all good things do indeed, it seems, come to an end and at age 6 everyone from the jishuhoiku group dutifully marched off to school. So much for independent education! My ideal was to continue exactly what we had been doing up until that time: playing and learning at home interspersed with group activities that would foster experiences we couldn’t provide at home. My husband and I had many discussions on this topic. I finally agreed to have Noa try the local public school and my husband remained open to the idea of partial homeschooling.

We asked for a meeting with the vice principal, known to be an open-minded person. We got a meeting with the VP as well as the principal who seemed more anxious about getting me to teach English in the school than anything else! Although (or maybe because) they had never had a request like ours before, they were quite amenable to everything we asked for. Basically we explained that since we were raising bilingual, bicultural, biliterate children we wanted concentrated time at home to work on English skills. Although there were many other reasons for choosing this path this was the reason that we brought to their attention. We asked if it would be possible to keep Noa home an unspecified number of days (they figured one day) per week. No problem.

Noa attended the first 3 weeks going full time since much of that time was spent orienting to school protocol. We started pulling him out about once a week after that. Despite his initial thrill with his new found independence he started showing signs of having trouble with school by getting "stomachaches" after about 1 month. I worked closely with his teacher to rule out the possibility of him not being able to keep up when he missed days. I tried to determine if he suddenly became unenamored with school because he was no longer the star. In the end, I (and Maya) became first graders alongside Noa for 3 weeks, initially at the suggestion of the teacher. It was a real eye opener for me. I noticed the biggest problem he was having was the constant need for him to march to the beat of a different drummer non-stop. There didn’t seem to be any moment available when he was able to find his own space and time.

He agreed to stick it out another month in order to participate in the undokai and until we took off for The States that year in June. He adamantly refused to go back in the fall. He knew I was sitting on the fence and was easily able to take advantage of that. In any case, his teacher was totally understanding and supported him while at the same time it was clear that her main motive was to try to convince him to come back. This still sometimes gets in the way of our otherwise open and honest communication as does the sometimes hard to hide required questioning regarding domestic/child abuse.

We did not attend the moving up ceremony but I was told later by his teacher that the principal had made an announcement that Noa would be moving up into second grade with the rest of the class. No one has ever checked his progress or asked to see what we are doing although occasionally Noa did one of the sheets sent home or showed his teacher his kanji book. Noa has always been proud of being a member of HIS school and HIS class and his classmates think of him as a complete if absent member as well. His teacher has played a large role in this.

After second grade had been in session a while Noa decided he wanted to participate in the undokai again and agreed to go to gym class for practice. This often wound up with him staying on so he could eat lunch (!) or because class periods were shifted around and gym ended up being later than originally planned. Sometimes it truly seemed like a plot to bring him into the fold but I more or less left it up to him. As soon as the undokai was over he stopped going. Other than a few extracurricular school activities he didn’t attend again until about two months before second grade ended. His class was doing a project that I felt he could benefit from so I asked him to go. He decided he also wanted to participate in gym class. Once again because of schedule changes and the fickle desires of an 8 year old he sometimes ended up staying much longer than originally planned but I also noticed a new maturity developing as well. Just as often he would go for exactly what he had planned to go for and nothing more. Even his teacher was impressed with the clarity with which he made his daily choices. Soon after the project ended he decided he had had enough and has stayed home since. He attended the last few days to solidify his relationship with his classmates who will be interspersed with the other students when they all move up to third grade.

On the Homefront

Our approach at home during these past two officially academic years has been rather eclectic. We are mostly unschoolers who prefer to follow the interests of our children rather than impose a curriculum. But we also wanted to make sure that our children had the basic 3 Rs under their belts in both languages so have guided them more directly in these areas. We have used workbooks along with a lot of hands on, real life, spur of the moment activities and games to enhance their knowledge in these areas.

Although I participated in all of the parent-teacher meetings and kept in close contact with his teacher who sent home all papers via a neighbor child we pursued our own agenda at home. Although we consider the 3 Rs vitally important they are the only "purely academic" activity we do and only take up a small portion of our day. We try to get to them everyday but don’t always manage this. Despite our ideas on child-led, interest-led learning it is difficult for us to get out of school mode and trying to keep up with the curriculum both because of the pace already set and because of our own schooling. We also weren’t sure if Noa would be going back to school and wanted him to have kept up somewhat with the academics being done so we relied on the textbooks sent home by school for math and literacy learning in Japanese. This has not been as big an issue in English since he has never gone to an American school although the "grade level" issue is often thrust at us by relatives and schooled friends’ parents.

My husband’s approach to homeschooling is different from mine. He mostly relies on a few of the school textbooks as well as workbooks he chooses from bookstores. He has become a bit more creative in his approach and now adds his own material to the lesson. Although I do sit down for lessons with my children irregularly I often grab opportunities during the day to point out how the situation incorporates what they are learning and to expand on it. I often refer to my unschooling approach as The Lazy Mom’s Approach since I do not regularly have a well organized plan of action. I seem to alternate between extremely creative, full, diverse days and totally hands off days when I would prefer to do my own work and leave the children to their own devices. The children also seem to go through similar phases. This is not a problem except when our phases are out of synch!

During the first grade year I worked on both English (in English) and Japanese (in Japanese) as well as math (in English) with Noa while Maya picked up things from the sidelines. My husband followed up with Japanese whenever he could or whenever we had a question (I’m sorry, Mommy doesn’t know that phrase. Let’s ask Daddy!). More than once I also called friends to help with a question in Japanese that we wanted an immediate answer to. We also started an English Reading Group with 3 other families in similar situations. We met once a week and worked on reading and writing skills. The mothers rotated being the teacher. Each mother brought her own style and ideas to her teaching which was not only refreshing and inspiring but effective. This group was a fantastic boon to Noa’s English literacy. He was much more agreeable working alongside a group of his friends and was then more amenable to follow-up at home with me. Unfortunately it petered out after a year and a half.

This past second grade year I have followed up intermittently by using a book called Reading Reflex, a phonographic method to bring Noa up to speed on the way English is encoded. It seems to have been the right book at the right time for him and he is finally reading books at approximately an American second grade level. My husband has had a very flexible work schedule in the past 6 months which has allowed him to work intensively with both children in Japanese. Noa is now at a second grade level with regard to Japanese literacy and mathematics.

Noa is not a natural wordsmith and reading and writing in both languages presents a huge challenge for him. Since my husband’s more intense involvement in recent months I have not worked much on mathematics in English with Noa. At present it is difficult for him to answer a math problem without first going through Japanese. Maya, on the other hand, has worked on math and literacy in both languages equally so far and has picked up literacy skills in both languages much more easily than Noa. Whenever she encounters a new and interesting word she likes to repeat it over and over to herself and starts using it almost immediately. She and Noa were actually at the same English/Japanese reading level for a few months until Noa made his most recent leap forward.

It seems to me, that as long as we were going to try school, Noa would have benefited from staying home another year before starting. Maya would actually benefit by starting this year instead of next year as determined by her May birth date. Her academic interest and studies have taken off in the past 6 months and she is nearly finished with the equivalent of a first grade 3 Rs education in both languages. The biggest benefit from being involved somewhat in school however, has been making local friends. Although Noa is not involved in the typical afterschool playdates at friends’ homes he feels comfortable calling friends and meeting them at the park. This is what Maya is in desperate need of at the moment.

CONCLUSION

We have found it easier to raise biliterate children in Japan by homeschooling. Despite the lack of our ideal of a larger, geographically closer group of homeschoolers to meet with we find the balance easier to achieve by following our own family rhythms. So far we have attempted to fill the gaps we encounter by utilizing the local public school carefully and wisely as well as other already established local Japanese or English groups. When our need is greatest (and my energy highest!) we create our own groups to fill in some of the gaps. Most choices regarding education of bi/multicultural children here fill part of our requirements and leave gaps with regard to others. We have found that homeschooling, rather than full time schooling, leaves gaps that we can fill more easily in creative ways.

Within our choice to utilize the local public school we were extraordinarily lucky first to have such a flexible and open school in the neighborhood and then to be assigned to the most experienced and wonderful teacher in the first and second grade. She has been the main reason our "experiment" with going to school has been so successful. Not only has the school remained flexible and in the background but this teacher has a wonderful ability to strive toward meeting the individual needs of her students. Obviously, 29 students with a set curriculum in a given time period tends to impose limits even on the most gifted teachers. Although she doesn’t really understand our choices she has supported them wholeheartedly not only advocating for us within the school system but also supporting our goals for Noa’s education as well.

We are filled with trepidation regarding the new school year which includes a change of teacher and mixing of the 3 second grade sections although we are also fully prepared to pull out completely and fill our gaps somewhere else if it looks like the tide has turned.

Brett of Tokyo



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