TOKYO -- In a country where schoolchildren must adhere to strict uniform regulations and rote learning is common, increasing numbers of parents are choosing to give their kids a more diverse education, despite it being technically illegal.
International schools, which typically conduct classes in English, are flourishing in Japan. The number of students at these schools has jumped about 30% in four years.
The surge in enrollment reflects parents’ desire to improve their children’s English ability and prepare them to compete in a globalized workforce. The schools also serve Japan’s growing foreign population.
Schools for foreign nationals, as their name suggests, are meant to provide an education to the children of non-Japanese. But regulations place these institutions in a separate category from public schools, meaning Japanese students’ attendance often technically falls outside the law.
In spite of the legal gray area, a growing number of Japanese children are being enrolled in such establishments, according to Manabu Murata, editor-in-chief of the International School Times, a specialist website.
Musashino University, a private institution in the capital, opened the Chiyoda International School Tokyo in April 2018. It currently serves only elementary school students, but it will add a junior and a senior high school this year. All classes are in English, except a one-hour Japanese language lesson. Teaching focuses on student interaction, rather than the lecture-heavy approach taken by many traditional Japanese schools.
"I want my child to learn to express herself clearly, in addition to being able to speak English," said Kiyomi Yasuoka, the mother of one 9-year-old pupil.
Hirokazu Osako, the principal, pointed to "growing demand from parents who want to raise their children to be global talent," to explain the school's growth. Just over 70% of the students are Japanese.
Schools for foreign nationals are licensed by prefectural governments and mostly classified as "miscellaneous schools," the same designation as an entity like a driving school. They are treated separately from "Article 1 schools" as defined by Japan's School Education Act.
According to the education ministry, there were 36 international schools in Japan in 2018, with three established during the previous four years. There were 13,331 students enrolled in these schools last year, up about 30% from 2014.
But including unlicensed institutions, there are actually more than 50 international schools in Japan, according to Murata. The number "will probably continue to increase in the future because new schools are being established at a pace of between one or two a year," he said.
The number of schools for students from South Asia is gradually increasing among them. Nishi-Kasai, in southeastern Tokyo, is home to a large Indian community. The Global Indian International School opened in 2006 to serve students from the country and has since seen enrollment soar to 700 from about 50.
It built a second campus in 2017 and plans to open a third between May and June this year that will accommodate 220 students. Taken together, the school plans to expand the number of places to 1,500.
Indian-style information technology education is popular, along with English, said Rajeshwary Sambathrajan, the principal.
Students study programming while still in elementary school, giving them the tools to create their own websites and games. About 60% of the school's students are Indian, while 35% are Japanese.
However, sending children to international schools comes at a cost, with tuition typically ranging between 2.5 million and 3 million yen ($22,500 and $27,000), although some charge less. Annual fees at Tokyo West International School in the city of Hachioji and Global Indian International School are about 1.5 million yen and 1 million yen, respectively.
But while English-language international schools are thriving, the number of students at schools catering to speakers of other languages is flat.
The number of foreign residents in Japan hit a record high of 2.63 million at the end of June 2018. Chinese and South Koreans together account for about 45% of the total, but only a few schools offer instruction in Chinese or Korean.
Among miscellaneous schools, there are only five Chinese schools and two South Korean schools. There are several South Korean institutions that operate as Article 1 schools.
Some Chinese and South Korean children attend international schools, according to Murata, meaning their parents "are probably prioritizing mastering English."
Japan’s history of immigration to South America and its colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula mean there are many Brazilians of Japanese descent and Koreans, including South Korean nationals, living in Japan.
According to the Brazilian Embassy in Tokyo, there were more than 120 Brazilian schools in Japan in the 2000s. But that figure has plummeted to 39 after many returned home following the global financial crisis in 2008.
The number of Korean schools -- a separate category from South Korean schools -- has also declined to 64 in 2018 from 76 in 2009. Students can learn Korean language and history at these schools.
"Partly because of deteriorating relations between Japan and North Korea, an increasing number of Korean parents are now choosing Japanese schools," a senior official at one Korean school said.
English-speaking international schools, continue to face challenges. Japanese citizens are legally required to attend Japanese elementary and junior high schools, but international schools are not recognized under the compulsory education system.
With few exceptions -- such as for those with dual nationality -- it is technically illegal for Japanese children within the age range for compulsory education to attend international schools.
Japanese students do so after their parents get approval from public elementary and junior high schools to treat them as truants, or with the parents knowing they are violating the law. Such students "tend to be in a state of legal limbo," said one person in the education industry.
Despite these issues, international schools look set to be increasingly prominent in education in Japan. "We’re contributing to Japanese society," said Chiyoda International School Tokyo's Osako.