Japanese kindergartens are usually run by young, female teachers. While many of these have had formal training, others are simply college graduates who want to work with children.
They follow a curriculum issued by the Japanese government that requires student development in everything from social skills to basic literacy. Kindergarten instructors, however, have more freedom with their curriculum than teachers of upper grades. They often adjust certain elements of the curriculum to fit with their personal styles.
Many foreign children attend private kindergartens. These kindergartens are often attached to a larger private school. If you want your child to attend a private or international school for primary and secondary school, it is a good idea to send him or her to that school´s kindergarten. These kindergartens are very popular among international families, so to save your child a place contact the school at least a year in advance of your move to Japan.
Japanese schools: Primary and secondary schools
The Japanese school system is broken up into 6 of years primary school and 3-6 years of secondary school. While primary schools are free, secondary schools charge a (subsidized) tuition.
The primary school system is designed to provide young students with a foundation of knowledge in preparation for further schooling. Primary schooling is compulsory in Japan, and it begins at the age of 6.
In addition to basic knowledge of mathematics, science, social studies and home economics, students are taught self-discipline and other Japanese social values. Following the daily lunch period, for example, there is a mandatory clean-up in which every student participates.
Contrary to upper school levels, primary school emphasizes the idea of minna issho (treating everyone the same). Hard work is encouraged over academic rankings, and students are not separated according to ability levels. This cooperative atmosphere changes dramatically as students get older.
Beginning in junior secondary school students are eligible to participate in extra-curricular activities, ranging from sports teams to academic competitions. Unlike some other countries, there is a strong expectation on the part of both parents and teachers that students will devote time to one or more major activities. Many secondary schools also impose curfews on their students in an effort to maintain their academic discipline.
Secondary school is not free in Japan. It usually costs several hundred thousand yen a year. Nonetheless, 96% of students attend. Secondary schools are ranked according to their success in getting students into top universities. It is at this level that Japanese students become extremely competitive.
Students at this level are divided into two separate education tracks: 1) students who intend to apply for university and 2) vocational students who will not attend university. While 70% of students follow the university track (it is more prestigious), the vocational students still have access to hundreds of specialized skill-based courses and qualified instructors. Many of these students divide their time between a half day of classes and a part-time job in order to gain work experience.
Special needs students
Japan offers excellent schools for children who are mentally or physically disabled. Unlike many countries, where special-needs students are “mainstreamed“ into the larger student population, Japanese students with disabilities attend separate schools. These schools are well-staffed, however, and some are able to provide an instructor for each student.
Not all areas of Japan have these special needs schools, however, so in many cases students have to live at the school they are attending (accomodations are provided, of course).