International Schools in Japan

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2003

by Stuart Braun

YOU'RE MOVING TO JAPAN to work. Great, but what do you do about your family's educational needs? You might be surprised to learn that Japan is home to numerous multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-purpose and globally competitive educational institutions that allow expatriates, multicultural families and Japanese families returning from living overseas to learn in a truly international educational environment.

Schools K-12
From kindergarten to primary, secondary and post-secondary education, Japan is endowed with a plethora of options for international schooling. Whether the size of the school, denomination, gender make-up, sporting facilities, teacher-child ratio, accreditation, staff qualifications, entrance grades, music programs or computer facilities are important to you--and of course, these factors will depend on the age of your child and the length of your stay--you will be sure to find a school to accommodate your needs in Japan.

One of the biggest concerns among newly arrived families in Japan is finding a school that will, in addition to giving your child an important introduction to Japanese culture, allow students to make the transition both from and to schools in foreign countries. Chia Ura, Director of PAL International School, a kindergarten in Tokyo, says PAL aims to alleviate such a common and understandable source of anxiety. "Although our prospective students and families usually have a limited time to stay in Japan (2-3 years on average), the parents are naturally concerned about many factors in their child's educational environment. They don't want their child to fall behind their peers in their home country. They also want them to learn something about Japanese culture and Japanese language whilst in Japan," she says.

PAL is one of a number of international schools in Japan where only English is spoken but where the rudiments of Japanese culture are built into the curriculum. "Our school is based on a firm Japanese educational philosophy established by three of the founding members who have more than ten years of experience," continues Ura. "In all classes, only English is spoken, but sometimes we do use Japanese songs or games. Also we do the alphabet, mathematics, and lots of academic study on a daily basis. Prospective students and families choose our school because they can have a cross-cultural experience'," she concludes.

Among early childhood schools, alternative educational methods that focus less on the academic and more on the practical and social growth of the child might be preferred. In this regard, several Montessori schools in Japan offer diverse educational choices. Kodomo no Ie, or Children's House, is one of the oldest and most highly respected Japanese Montessori schools in Tokyo and was founded nearly 30 years ago by current director and Head Teacher, Kuzuko Hotta. Children's House provides complete Japanese immersion within a Montessori framework and a unique opportunity for children to work and play within an innovative Japanese environment. Most importantly for foreign nationals, all children are welcome, regardless of language ability. In addition to the core curriculum, the teaching program includes art, music and physical education to ensure the focus is not only on the child's cognitive and academic environment, but also his/her emotional, physical and social development.

Though PAL, modeled around Japanese educational philosophies, and Children's House, offering alternative education methods, are representative of Japan's educational diversity, western-style schools, with accreditation from foreign institutions, are a common route for newly arrived expat families who want to maintain the same school environment for their children. St. Mary's International School, for instance, is a typical elementary and secondary boy's school catering to 950 boys from 65 different countries. "The diverse cultural, academic and religious backgrounds of our students culminate in a special spirit of understanding," explains Unryu Haku, Development Manager at St Mary's, of a school that successfully fuses Western education methods into a polyglot teaching environment. St Mary's, along with the American School in Japan, which offers an American-style curriculum for students from age 3 to grade 12, is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). St Mary's also has accreditation from the ECIS (European Council of International Schools), while ASIJ's early childhood program is the only preschool program in Tokyo to have accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

St Mary's is typical of a number of international schools in Japan that ensure your child's preparation for university by operating according to the strict standards of accrediting associations such as the International Baccalaureate, which forms part of an advanced college preparatory study program. Even at Children's House, all teachers are Montessori Teacher Training certified by Sophia University. International schools in Japan are also mostly affiliated with the JCIS (Japan Council of International Schools), a body established to promote continuity between staff, teachers and administrators working in the international schools community.

The strict accreditation standards conformed to by international schools in Japan has proffered comparatively high academic achievement. According to the ASIJ, their students achieve above-average percentile scores on US-normed standardized tests and engage in classroom work above grade-level expectations. Also, ASIJ's high school offers 17 college-level Advanced Placement courses, and students regularly earn excellent results, with about 98 percent entering university immediately after graduation and attending a range of excellent schools in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and Japan.

Apart from academic credentials, these schools offer open, tolerant, multi-racial environments for students from around the world. "St Mary's aims to blend diverse elements into a unity that will enable our students to obtain a global perspective and respect for one another," says Haku. In a further effort to broaden their students' perspectives, St. Mary's is physically expanding, having purchased land adjacent to the school to embark on a new building project -- a rare feat in space-constrained Tokyo. "We have asked our architects to present a new building model and plan by the end of this year," Haku says.

International schools in Japan have a long and proud tradition. ASIJ is in the midst of its Centennial Celebration and is commemorating its 100th anniversary with a series of events culminating in a gala set for San Francisco in June 2003. With outstanding faculty and facilities, and its welcoming, international school community, ASIJ is known for its challenging college preparatory curriculum, its commitment to Japanese language and cultural studies, and its highly experienced faculty. A well-developed co-curricular program of athletics, music, art, drama, dance, and other special interest activities as well as three gymnasiums, an indoor pool, and two practice fields adds to each student's educational experience. As Headmaster Peter Cooper remarks, "We're very proud of the stellar reputation that ASIJ has earned throughout the world because of its innovative programs, its commitment to technology and its caring faculty. Prospective parents should visit our school to see for themselves how we can help their children to develop their full potential."

Tertiary Schooling and MBAs
Japan also offers significant scope for tertiary schooling in English, whether it be a bachelors degree or an MBA. The McGill MBA Japan program, for instance, has been designed to provide students with a world-class North American style graduate business education that emphasizes the international perspective required by today's top managers. McGill University's Executive MBA program is conducted on Yotsuya Campus of Sophia University, and has been popular with students of various nationalities. The program also aims to provide students with the theoretical knowledge and the practical skills they will need to meet the leadership challenges of the next generation. "McGill MBA Japan is a natural extension of the faculty's mission to deliver educational excellence and innovation in an international environment," says the Director Scott Maltby. "An MBA takes experts from one industry or job function and provides them the opportunity to broaden their management skills, knowledge, experience and networks," Maltby continues. "It gives them the confidence that they're doing the right things in the workplace. It enhances the holder's opportunities for promotion or to find a better job." In today's competitive global business environment, it can be an advantage.

Language Schools
Living, working and studying in Japan also means learning the language, and there are a myriad of institutions that can help. But finding the right one will depend on time, budget and previous ability. For most working people the important thing will be flexibility. In this regard, EII Language School offers varied schedules for taking classes (i.e. students can choose their own class schedules), and has 14 convenient domestic branches in addition to international ownership branches in England, Australia, Vietnam and Korea. If a person moves to another country, he or she can change the school location while remaining enrolled. In addition, all teachers follow the same teaching methodology, called Image Lesson,' so that students are able to learn under the same teaching systems at any school location.

Elsewhere, the Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute (SNG) offers what it calls a "guaranteed path" to Japanese language ability from basic conversation to university level. SNG is one of only 17 Japanese language schools in all of Japan that is certified by the Japanese Ministry of Education to prepare foreign learners of Japanese for entrance into Japanese universities. "Our school focuses on getting our students speaking and understanding conversational Japanese quickly in order to give them the skills they need to survive in Japan," says Eric Bray of SNG's English Operations.

Those with busy lifestyles who want to learn Japanese fast might be asking a lot, but SNG say it's possible. "Using a rapid drilling approach, we familiarize students with even relatively complex grammar from the outset. Due to our unique approach to Japanese grammar, which makes grammar easy to understand for anyone by giving each part of speech a shape and color, our students are given the confidence they need to start conversations with native speakers and really learn Japanese," says Bray. Similar to EII's Image Lesson,' SNG's Japanese teaching methodology does not labor over strict vocabulary, but promotes "fun, fast learning and easy understanding through continuous conversations between teachers and students or among students."

 ELT Resources -- Tools to get the job done right.

One of the biggest gripes heard from ELTs and English conversation teachers is that they are forced to teach with inappropriately designed materials. We do not know who is more frustrated, the teacher or the learner; however, there is hope. We have found a company that is trying to do something about it. Macmillan LanguageHouse. Although they publish effective English language textbooks for the Japanese school market, and a wide selection of self study English textbooks, their best selling item -- the Macmillan English Dictionary -- is the foundation of any language learner.

Peter Schuetz, ELT Sales and Marketing Manager of Macmillan LanguageHouse, tells us of numerous cases of highly capable teachers who have their hands tied because their schools have not given them the proper books or resources. Besides their Macmillan English Dictionary (available for advanced learners in American and British editions), Macmillan has released numerous titles especially developed for young Japanese adult learners who have studied English for a few years yet lack the ability to understand, or the confidence to communicate effectively outside the classroom. "How many people do you know that match that description?" laments Peter. "It is a shame that I didn't have these (holding up a text and the dictionary) 20 years ago when I first got here. We are on our way to relieving much of the pain involved with learning English in this country as well as right across Asia."

Out of the many features inserted into the dictionary to facilitate learning, Macmillan makes a very important distinction between productive words that people need to use all the time in English, and receptive words that they read or hear but do not use. We believe that learners of English should also be using these very common words, and so we have printed them in red in the dictionary. There are 7500 "red" words, and these make up about 90% of all the English that you are likely to read, listen to, write, or speak.

No matter what the latest technology, Peter Schuetz assures us that Macmillan LanguageHouse's mission is to address the needs of learners and educators of English by providing the best English learning and teaching materials, thereby making life easier for both the teacher and, more importantly, the learner.

At Evergreen Language School, the emphasis is on small, intensive classes so students can progress quickly to business level Japanese, and ultimately, can become eligible for a cultural visa. With students from all over the world studying Japanese at the school, a particular effort is made to give individual, custom-tailored attention, notes Evergreen teacher, Motoko Ogawa. "In proportionately small classes, students will study progressively and teachers will get to know each student individually." Another Evergreen teacher, Mikako Arai, agrees. "Our school is not a large school, so students and teachers are very close and study hard together."

Evergreen has created a thorough teaching program focused around a one-month intensive course. But they also offer a range of part-time programs like these typically offered at other Japanese language schools, including a two days-a-week course, private lessons, lessons at companies or private homes, and a Japanese Language Proficiency Test Preparation Course (September-November). Evergreen also offers Pre-College courses for college and vocational school entrants. According to Evergreen, many students proceed to colleges or professional schools or acquire good positions in Japanese companies and embassies.

For English speakers who need basic business coaching and returnee Japanese speakers looking to further their business education and work in an international environment, there are a number of schools designed for language and business studies in English. New Leaves, for instance, offers business seminars in English aimed at native speakers -- which until now have only been offered in Japanese -- but primarily targets Japanese business people looking to study marketing, mail order, or general management in English, including entrepreneurs looking to do business with other countries or Japanese people studying for an MBA.

For expats, bicultural students and returnees, New Leaves also runs weekend seminars in PhotoReading -- a whole-brain approach to speed reading. A student completing this weekend intensive course receives a certificate upon graduation, enabling them to take the course as many times as they wish, anywhere in the world, at no additional cost. New Leaves is the first school in Japan to offer PhotoReading seminars in English, and these have been very successful over the last year. New Leaves' special service is an "immersion weekend" for Japanese people wishing to brush-up their English before going abroad for work, or people who have to deal with foreigners in their business life. In addition, New Leaves plans to offer business coaching and self-development courses in English for expats in the New Year.

Japan's international schools offer a wealth of educational opportunity for expats, multi-racial families and returnees looking to secure an international education at the early childhood, elementary, secondary or post-secondary level. Not only are school students, MBA/university candidates, and language students able to broaden their educational horizons in Japan, but with the right choices, they will also be able to hold their place in an internationally competitive educational environment. @

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