What is it like sending your child to a Japanese kindergarten?
Have you ever wondered what a Japanese kindergarten is like?
Or have you considered forgoing international school in an effort to help your child fit into their local community and learn a new language?
This is my experience in a Japanese kindergarten.
About the kindergarten system in Japan:
Kindergarten is called “yochien” in Japanese. It is for kids aged 3-5 at the start of the year, so turning 4-6. The school year begins on April 2 and runs until mid-March. So the youngest child is born on April 1st, while the oldest child is born on April 2nd. You must be 3 years old to start yochien, in general.
There are three grades – nensho, nenchu, and nencho. The youngest grade, middle grade and oldest grade.
The school day runs from 9am to 2pm, but you can pay extra to extend early in the morning or until 7pm.
Anyone can attend kindergarten. Unlike daycare which requires the parents to be working, kindergarten will accept anyone.
The kids usually wear an adorable uniform, different in summer and winter.
What does it cost?
Kindergarten is free for the basic hours. You pay for school lunches, which are usually cooked freshly on site, and are mostly Japanese style. You pay about 4000 yen per month if you use the school bus. And you are looking at an extra 10,000-20,000 yen per month if you extend the hours.
When my child started nensho, she had only just turned three, she was one of the youngest. She was toilet trained, but not confident at school, so she wore a mixture of diapers and underwear at first. The school was okay with this, but were not vigilant at changing her like her old daycare was. So do try and toilet train before starting yochien if possible. They will not let any child who wears diapers to attend the summer swimming, so they recommend being out of diapers by July.
My child did not speak Japanese when she started kindergarten, and the first three months were a bit difficult as she didn’t have good friends, and she was too nervous to eat lunches. After three months she made friends and could speak some Japanese, so she enjoyed kindergarten a lot more. Since the kids were so little, in “nensho”, they are still babied quite a lot. Parents attend outings, the teacher goes with them to the toilet, they are helped to change clothes, reminded what things to bring home, and so on. So it is a good introduction to independence.
There was no academic learning in nensho, merely playing, music, art, activity books and so on. For us, this was good as it gave my child a chance to pick up Japanese casually through play.
Suddenly the kids looked a lot more grown up as they moved to year two, standing next to the babies who had just entered the school. They were expected to be more independent; they should remember what things to bring home by themselves and change clothes without help. The teachers will still help if necessary, for example if someone needs help doing up their buttons, but they ask parents to teach their kids at home.
They started doing hiragana in their Gakken classes (once a week), but it is not expected that they know the characters at this age.
In class, it was still mostly play based. They started learning the “pianica”, a mix between the piano and a harmonica. In Japan, almost every child learns music on the pianica.
By this middle year, my child was fluent in Japanese.
In nencho, the children are the oldest in the school. They get all the responsibilities like handing over gifts to the local police offers on appreciation day, marching in with instruments and flags on sports day, and so on. They get to do an overnight camp in the mountains in summer. The teachers are preparing them to start elementary school, and giving them the chance of leadership before they become the babies once again when they start school.
In nencho, they also start academic work. This is basically hiragana and basic numbers and reading. Most kids in Japan know hiragana before starting school, as well as how to write their name.
One of the nice things about Japanese kindergarten are the special events.
In October, the is “undokai”, or sports day. The kids all march out military style and perform acrobatic tricks in unison that kids back home would struggle with.
There is the art festival, when the school is decorated with all their art work.
In August there is a summer family day, where they hold traditional festival games for the kids to take part in.
In September they do fruit or vegetable harvesting in the countryside.
In February is the “oyugikai”, or dance recital. Each class performs a couple of dances to Japanese music. In what was my least favourite thing about yochien, parents were expected to sew parts of the costume.
You have probably heard that parents must be really involved in kindergarten in Japan. While this is true for some elite schools, it was not our experience. Twice a year in nensho, they have a park outing which parents should attend. In nenchu and nencho, this trip is done without parents. There are two parent-teacher conferences per year. There is one parent observation day per year. The special events are always held on weekends and optional.
There is also the dreaded PTA, but at our school this just involved one initial meeting where parents volunteered to join various positions, but most parents were reluctant and they had trouble filling the positions. No one expected me to join anything.
If you want your child to attend kindergarten in Japan, try and learn some basic Japanese so that you can communicate with the other parents and the teachers, even JLPT N5 would be enough (although you will need to hire someone to help you with the initial paperwork and interview session). Don’t be surprised when your child surpasses you after the first year!