Anyone who’s visited Japan or seen enough Japanese culture can imagine education in Japan is taken pretty seriously. Kids can be seen in uniform from age 4 all the way up to 18 years old. Japan still boasts annually having a 99% literacy rate. There’s a robust after-school industry called “cram schools” cashing in on the competitive testing environment. But it doesn’t suit everyone, and these days truancy – or missing school – has been getting attention. Other concerns are being examined, and aside from some education reform, both Japanese and international families can find themselves having to consider alternative education for various reasons, such as language barriers. Without state-subsidization, private school or international school tuition can break the bank, even without promise of accreditation. So what else is there? Well, there’s homeschooling.

Picture of a hand-drawn tree

Homeschooling, however, is most certainly not the first option on most people’s list so far. Talking to someone about it can invite mixed reactions, and of course questions; especially living in Japan – a country with compulsory education and a rigorous testing system that can have kids burning the midnight oil before they even reach junior high school.

“Is homeschooling legal in Japan?” “Why don’t you go to the local school, isn’t it good enough?” And there’s usually this question, “Is your child OK?”

– a question that carries the underlying presumption that educating a child at home deprives him or her of something like “proper social interaction,” whatever that looks like. The variety of answers you can get from homeschoolers easily outnumber the questions themselves. Everyone has a different story. This is where we find ourselves as we peek into the homeschooling option in Japan, which like other education-related issues, isn’t getting enough attention in neither the expat, nor the Japanese community.

Reality is slowly revealing itself, however, showing us that homeschooling is a viable, and sometimes unavoidable option. Many foreign families living in Japan embrace homeschooling and are openly exercising this option; however, for some Japanese families, it can be a secret due to cultural pressure, which tends to see attending public school as a duty, judging others who opt out of it. Actually, many Japanese families in this position wish to see their children attend public school, and are only teaching them at home out of absolute necessity.

Let’s pause to clarify what we mean by homeschooling, and what it can look like. Homeschooling is generally a North American term. Those coming from the UK would say home education, and within some circles, unschooling has gained popular usage, even as a subset of homeschooling. Here in Japan, free school (フリースクール), not to be confused with some organized ‘private’ free schools, is the commonly used term. Aside from any general confusion about the term, it is unlikely you’ll get further detail from anyone who isn’t homeschooling, especially as they may have never even considered it. Even local educational authorities will give you a blank stare – followed by a concerned stare – if you ask. For the sake of consistency in our story we’ll stick with the term homeschooling.

“So what is homeschooling anyways?”

Self-directed homeschooling schedule

The slightly dissatisfying and simplistic answer to that is “it’s a lifestyle.” Homeschooling families agree with this idea, and they also agree with the sentiment that the more you homeschool, the more you see daily life as a part of the educational process, whether or not there is any other curriculum and structure. Homeschooling families intimately know that it’s a huge, daily commitment. School is “in session” 24/7 for most homeschoolers, meaning involved parents have a mindset for teachable moments that usually does not stop. For example, at least one parent is teaching their child, while the breadwinner is at work. Some fortunate families can have a schedule that allows both of them to be home with their children, sharing the responsibility. These varying lifestyles factor vary critically. Knowing that each family’s lifestyle is making a huge impact on their homeschooling, and vice versa, we are left with a very wide range of possibility, and this so-called “range of possibility” is what homeschooling is really about.

Let’s use a typical public school setting to look at it another way: We all know what it looks like, whether you’re from the US, the UK, Japan, or any other developed country with public education. We usually see a picture of a classroom with nearly 30 chairs and desks, about as many children, and at least one teacher standing in the front of the classroom. Furthermore, we can imagine a structured plan covering basic subjects most of us have all had (and perhaps even dreaded) throughout our own education. So if we take out 29 chairs and desks, 29 kids, double the teachers, and make our own homes and the world around them the classroom, we can begin to allow our imagination to grow and diverge into that aforementioned “range of possibility.” Oh, and what about curriculum or a structured plan? Maybe there’s one, but then maybe there isn’t any.

Returning to Japan and its own quandary about homeschooling we are immediately presented with the question: “Is homeschooling legal in Japan?” No, not precisely. “So it’s illegal?” you may wonder. Again, not precisely; but taken at face value, it could be seen as illegal. Please note our disclaimer here: we at Japan Daily are not lawyers (should’ve stayed in school longer… 😀 ), and we’re not trying to give any legal advice. DO VERIFY THIS INDEPENDENTLY, and please consult the proper authorities in your area to clear up any concerns you might have about this. We have found that carefully discussing homeschool plans with local educational authorities is key. Nevertheless, the legality of homeschooling in Japan is not fully settled. While some countries have clear legal language about this, Japan does not at this time.

One reason that there yet remains legal ambiguity is simply because homeschooling hasn’t gone mainstream in Japan yet. However, this year the Ministry of Education did raise the subject, acknowledging they needed to review homeschooling, and address it more appropriately. Whatever the case may be, it’s worth noting these laws only apply to Japanese nationals, so if your child has Japanese citizenship, he or she is subject to Japanese law, even with dual citizenship. By the same token, non-Japanese nationals needn’t worry. Please check your own nation’s laws as there may be some level of accountability even while living abroad.

Saving legal questions for another time, let’s get into some of the reasons for homeschooling in Japan. While American homeschooling has been associated with religious families wanting to shelter their children from secular influences in public education, Japanese families who are homeschooling are usually driven by special needs for their children. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of classroom support for many children with special needs, ranging from learning disabilities to other issues such as hikikomori or reclusive children, another growing concern here in Japan. This has created an unavoidable necessity for some Japanese parents who would have never started homeschooling as they simply wanted their children to fit in at school.

Not all Japanese homeschooling families are doing so because of special needs, however. Some families are choosing the homeschooling path because they feel their children deserve that option. They feel it’s a better fit for their children instead of compulsory education, particularly as there is more frustration with the failure of results-oriented education, which comes with growing hours of homework and examination preparation. As there have been cases of homeschooled children successfully passing exams to enter Japan’s more difficult universities, more families are beginning to see homeschooling as a legitimate option or alternative to public schools these days.

Self-motivated learner looking at you

After starting homeschooling, “Is your child OK?” is often asked. Given our common experience in larger classrooms, it is a question grounded in anyone’s natural concern that homeschooled children aren’t getting enough opportunities to play and socialize with others. To be honest, and fair, the same question is asked about kids who struggle to remain in the Japanese public system, especially in light of the bullying issues we often hear about, or the linguistic or cultural gaps some kids experience. So if the original intent of the question is to be addressed – that is the concern for childrens well-being, interaction, and socialization – then it should be mentioned homeschoolers are finding reassurance through homeschool networks on social media and community groups that help to connect homeschooled children. There are many extracurricular opportunities to be found where kids can meet, play and learn with others here in Japan. Even better is that families can also ensure safe, positive environments.

So having read this short introduction to homeschooling, and a little about how its seen in Japan, what’s the take-away? That depends on you, the reader. As a parent, a teacher, a researcher, or more, this at least seeded a few relevant points for further consideration and discussion. We hope its clearer why homeschooling in Japan is important to families, whether experiencing some of the issues mentioned above, or looking for a better fit for their children. If you’re moving your family to Japan for a period of time, or you’re already in Japan, a homeschooling path may be the right choice for you.

Stay tuned for more details about this relatively intimated approach to education, as we explore more homeschooling cases, and please let us know what you think about it.