Education options for expat families in Japan are plentiful – particularly in large cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. 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. 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 some schools 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 will naturally depend on the school. Some require a certain level of English ability (if English isn't 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. 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

Japanese public or private schools are a less common option but may suit expat families who are staying in Japan for a long period or who live 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.

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

Elementary schools are generally assigned by location, though it's possible to choose a private school. Some private schools are highly esteemed with the result that 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.

Tutors in Japan

Schooling in Japan is competitive. It’s therefore common for students to have multiple tutors for different school subjects. Especially for expat children, having a tutor in Japan may be useful. A tutor can assist a child to maintain their mother tongue or help them study Japanese. If a child is attending a school with a new curriculum, a tutor is an excellent way of catching up with what they are behind on.

Tutoring is popular in Japan, which has lead to many tutoring companies popping up across the country. Though expats may be spoilt for choice, they should do thorough research on all options before choosing a tutor. Schools will also often recommend trustworthy tutors.

Special needs education in Japan

The Japanese government is focused on creating an inclusive society in which educational needs are met for each individual student. In line with this, the vast majority of children with special needs are taught in regular public schools. The method of assistance in Japanese public schools will depend on the child’s disabilities and the severity thereof. Options range from being taught in regular classes to attending special resource rooms a few times a week, to special needs education classes. 

Children with acute disabilities may benefit from attending dedicated special needs schools. These schools are run by local governments and have classes from kindergarten to senior high school. The curriculum in these schools is the same as in public schools. However, they also have added activities that teach daily living skills.

Expat parents with special needs children have many options available to them as well. Various international schools follow the Waldorf-Steiner and Montessori methods. These schools have a more flexible approach to education and are known to cater to individual students’ needs.

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