Tips for Finding an International School

Experience is the best teacher.

By Willhemina Wahlin

Sitting down in the park one day, I got chatting to a Japanese mother of two about her son’s schooling. “When my son does drawing at school, the teacher tells him, ‘you have to hurry up!’ They tell him, ‘the tree has to go here, and the sun has to go there.’ They are very strict.”

Being of the laid-back Australian variety of person, I was slightly horrified at the prospect of my effervescent child being beaten into a creative box. I promptly crossed that school off my list, and realized why so many parents have the ‘school’ conversation long before their child is even out of nappies. (Note to myself: begin research much sooner next time…)

Of course, as revealing as these discussions can be, they only make up a small part of your school hunt. Learning more about the styles of teaching and the formal recognition of a school is equally as important. Let’s face it, finding the right school for your child, even in your own homeland, can be like a cross-country event through a minefield of information, requiring agile navigation between varying philosophies, teaching styles, arts programs, sports programs, and, of course, the success of a school’s alumni.

Tips for Finding an International School

In Japan, it can be even more daunting. There’s no doubt that placing your child in a Japanese school at a young age will be a valuable experience for them, immersing them in Japanese language and culture, but this can be tougher on older children with no Japanese skills. As excellent as many Japanese schools are, a sharp jump in the incidents of bullying are off-putting for many foreign parents, who are increasingly turning to international schools to provide a more familiar environment for their children. Whether in English, German, French, or Chinese, there is a virtual smorgasbord of international schools for parents to choose from. Now bilingual schools are beginning to fill a much-needed gap for children with both foreign and Japanese parents.

Wakana Farrell-Whelan and her Australian husband, Max, decided to send their son to the Bilingual Kids International (BKI) preschool in Musashi-Sakai. “Firstly it was affordable,” Ms Farrell-Whelan explained of their reasons for choosing this school. “Secondly we wanted to give Jade an English environment because he doesn’t have much opportunity to speak English while his father is away at work. Thirdly we like the school attitude. They let the children think and decide what they want to study (with the teacher’s help), and teachers always encourage the interests of the children.”

BKI is the only school in Japan that is based on the Reggio Emilia method, where the teacher ‘co-explores’ the learning experience with children, and works on a project-based curriculum. Projects can be initiated by the children, or instigated by the teachers, based on the interests of the children. Effectively, it encourages children to be their own teacher, while their teacher acts as a facilitator for their learning.

When the Farrell-Whelans returned to Australia, their son’s experience at BKI made his integration into an Australian school easier. “He’s got more confidence in himself because of his experience with BKI. He did a lot of show and tell, which helped him to express his opinions in front of his friends. He was also encouraged to help the younger ones.”

We chose SIS International School (Smiley Kids) for our son, and soon discovered that well over 90% of the students were Japanese! As it turns out, this is both a blessing and a curse. While our son comes home singing songs in a jumbled language at times, there is no doubt that he is rapidly expanding his knowledge of both English and Japanese at the same time. The school uses the Calvert system, which was originally set up as a home schooling support system in 1907. Classes are “keyed to the development of a child’s sensory and social skills”, and include maths, science, plenty of stories, play time (inside and outdoors), music and art. They also have a computer lab at some campuses for the older children.

There were other reasons for choosing the school as well. Access to child care can be challenging at best in Japan, with preference given to children whose mothers are already working (the question begs: how can one GET a full-time job before securing child-care?), so an international preschool has helped fill that gap. While the fees are not exactly cheap, they are reasonable, with not too many hidden extras, such as school uniforms. Luckily, we are very close to the school, so we don’t have to fork out additional fees for a bus, which can be hefty.

One of the drawbacks has been the difficulty in finding a school that teaches British-English. While they do exist, they are overwhelmingly in the shadow of schools that teach US English, and this poses some problems for families who come from British-English speaking countries. If repatriation in a few years is likely, it would be prudent to keep an eye on grammar and spelling at home, making reintegration easier for your child later on.

By far the greatest discovery has been our campus’ principal. She pays great attention to the development of the children, not just academically, but also emotionally and behaviorally, and fosters cooperation between home and school. Importantly, she always has time to talk with you about your child, and is never in a hurry to get to somewhere else. It is worth choosing a school where you can develop this type of rapport with your child’s teachers. If nothing else, it can lead you to many new discoveries about your own child.

The choice of schools will always depend on the needs of your child and what is available in your area, but with this list, we hope to make the search just that little bit easier. While there are many International schools in Japan that cater to native speakers of other languages, and an increasing amount of schools outside the Tokyo area, we have limited our list to English-language and bilingual schools in Tokyo. For further information on other schools, we have made a list to a few websites you might find useful. Take special note of the ‘Japan with Kids’ website, which is a wealth of information, not just from the site administrators, but from other parents who have been there, done that. There’s no finer teacher than experience! JI

And now for some homework!

Once you have a school on your radar, there are some very good websites to further your research. The ‘Japan with Kids’ website is a great place to get in touch with other parents, while other online school guides are useful if you are outside the Tokyo area, or require a school that teaches in languages other than English.

Japan with Kids:

Stamford Guide to International Schools:

Global Daigaku:

Tips for Finding an International School

Choosing a school may be as easy as picking the one that’s in your local area, but if you have a few to choose from, it’s worth looking into what kind of methods they base their teaching on. Here’s a list of some of the main methods in Tokyo International schools.

Maria Montessori, the first woman to become an MD in Italy, founded the Montessori method. Born in 1870, her work was pioneering for its time, recognizing that children are not merely ‘blank slates’ to be written upon, but learn through their own inquisitive natures. There are many Montessori-based schools in Japan.

Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants—doing nothing but living and walking about—came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning: would you not think I was romancing? Well, just this, which seems so fanciful as to be nothing but the invention of a fertile imagination, is a reality. It is the child's way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so passes little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love.

Maria Montessori

The Core Knowledge Curriculum
According to the St George Academy in Nagoya, a recent study by John Hopkins University found that “Core Knowledge students learned more advanced language arts, science, and social studies topics and skills than did their non-participating peers.” Professor E. D. Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need, founded the movement. Based on cognitive psychology, as well as a careful examination of several of the world’s fairest and most effective school systems, Professor Hirsch argued that, for the sake of academic excellence, greater fairness, and higher literacy, early schooling should provide a solid, specific, shared core curriculum in order to help children establish strong foundations of knowledge.


Reggio Emilia
Reggio Emilia is fast becoming one of the world’s favorite forms of teaching preschool-aged children, and is only just making its way into Japan (see BKI school listing). In 1991, Newsweek hailed Reggio Emilia preschools as the best in the world (a big claim!). The method encourages children to be their own teacher, the teacher instead becoming a facilitator to their learning. The environment is often considered ‘the third teacher’, so within Reggio Emilia schools, you will find an interesting and stimulating school, where great attention has been paid to the look and feel of the setting. Founded in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia by Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994), the approach requires children to be seen as resourceful, competent, curious, imaginative and inventive, possessing a desire to interact and communicate with others. Often, teachers will initiate a long-term group project, based on a child’s ideas, that the class will collaboratively work on. Reggio Emilia schools can now be found in the USA, UK, Australia, Canada and other countries around the world.


The Calvert System
Celebrating its 100th Anniversary in 2006, the Calvert system was originally designed to provide quality teaching materials for home-schooled children. Today, it provides materials for schools around the world, including some international schools in Tokyo. According to the Calvert organization, courses are approved by the Maryland State Department of Education, and the school is a member of the Educational Records Bureau and the National Association of Independent Schools. Focusing on the classics of maths, science, literature and the arts, Calvert continues to be a popular method of teaching.


There are many forms of accreditation, so it helps to know what you are looking for when researching through school websites. The most popular accreditation for International schools are:

The National Association of Independent Schools;
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges;
The Independent Association of Preparatory Schools;
The Council of International Schools;
The Western Association of Schools Committee; and
The European Council of International Schools.

It may also be worthwhile to check whether your local International school is recognised by the Japanese Ministry of Education or your local ward office.



We have heard through the grapevine that children of foreign parents who have not been in Japan for five years or more will not be eligible to enter the Japanese public school system. We are trying to find out more for you, but at this stage it looks like International Schools will be the beneficiaries of such a law!

Of course for parents who cannot afford, or even prefer, to put their children in public schools, this could create quite a problem, and is not just a little bit discriminatory! Like I said, we will try to find out more for you. If anyone has any further information, please feel free to post it here.


Sorry it has taken a little while to get back to you all on the issue of new legislation for foreign children in Japanese schools.

Apparently the issue is quite the opposite to the rumour that was milling about! The government is preparing legislation that will ensure all children of long-term residents in Japan are party to the compulsory school rules that govern Japanese children.

The aim of the legislation is to help children integrate better into Japanese society, while also being able to monitor children if need be, reported the Nikkei in January.

The legislation refers to high-skilled foreign workers who have been employed within Japan for 10 years or more.

"There were roughly 124,000 foreign children age 5-14, including Korean residents in Japan, registered with the Justice Ministry at the end of 2005. A significant number of them were believed not to be attending school," reported the Nikkei.

If parents ignore the new legislation, they could end up with a whopping Y100,000 fine! The legislation will perhaps also be expanded to include children of other foreign residents at a later date.

Imagine International Preschool in Yokohama (and Aoyama) has also used the Reggio Emilia approach since 2003.

The early learning centers at Nagoya International School and Yokohama International School have adapted the Reggio Emilia approach, along with our school in Aichi (Discovery International School).