Education and Schools in Japan

Education options for expat families in Japan are plentiful – particularly in large cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and others. However, these options largely depend on how long expats plan to stay in Japan, the age of their children, and their location.

The school year in Japan generally runs from April to March. There is usually a two- or three-week break between school terms, and summer vacation lasts anywhere from one to two and a half months, though this depends on the school and district. However, international schools may use a Western school year calendar, depending on the school.

International schools in Japan

International schools are one of the most popular options for expat families considering education for their children in Japan. The accreditation systems and curricula of these institutions vary depending on the type of school and the child's national origin. Most will teach in English, but there are also schools that cater specifically to French, German, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean expats, as well as some other nationalities.

The majority of schools cater specifically to kindergarten, elementary and middle grades as high school is considered optional in Japan, but a few schools do go up to Grade 12. 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 and, of course, depend on the school. Some require a certain level of English ability (if English is not the child's first language). Many require students to reside near the school, as very few schools have boarding facilities. Tuition and costs also vary, and aside from basic tuition costs, there may be additional costs for uniforms, backpacks, field trips, bus services and even technology fees.

Public and private schools in Japan

A less common option, Japanese public or private schools may suit expat families, particularly if they are staying in Japan for a long period of time or living outside of a major metropolis.

In Japan, the Ministry of Education determines the national curriculum, though schools and teachers choose how to present the material. Curriculum for secondary grades is primarily assessment-based learning and quite rigid. General subjects are taught in Japanese, though some schools offer international tracks.

English is required to learn as a second language at elementary and secondary level, though the effectiveness with which it is taught is debatable, and the level is far too easy for children who speak it as their native language.

Elementary schools are generally assigned by location, though it is possible to choose a private school. Some private schools are highly esteemed, and thus admission is competitive, but more often private schools serve as a “safety net” for secondary students not admitted to the school of their choice.

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, much like university admissions. Unfortunately, the high school that students attend dictates the universities they can apply for and, essentially, also their futures.

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.

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 somewhat 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.

Ashley Thompson Our Expat Expert

Born and raised in the Northwest Washington State (USA), Ashley Thompson crossed over the ocean to Japan two years ago. After a year and a half teaching English full-time to high school students, she currently spends her time writing, blogging, learning Japanese and experiencing the culture first-hand (with some occasional English teaching thrown in). She also enjoys playing in the great outdoors and beautiful Japanese nature with her husband, David. Her blog, "Surviving in Japan", is devoted to providing unique and helpful resources and how-to's to help other expats moving to, or living and working in Japan.