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Japanese Families Increasingly Sending Children to International Schools - 2003-03-12


More and more Japanese children are going to international schools. For some, the schools offer a chance to become fluent in English. Akemi Suto has never lived outside Japan. But when her daughter Fumi turned 10 years old, she sent her to an international school in Tokyo where all classes are taught in English.

"My son studies in America and I wanted my daughter to have similar education," she said. "So I decided to send her to an international school. It is a big change for her but she and I both like the school environment. In fact, I am happy to see my daughter enjoying the school."

"Classes are hard as I study in English, which is my second tongue," said Fumi, who has spent four years in international schools and attends the Christian Academy. "But it is fun to speak two languages and get to know many people from other countries."

The schools mainly educate the children of expatriates. They teach in a foreign language, usually English, and use methods and courses that can be quite different from those used in Japanese schools.

International schools have long been a haven for Japanese children who have lived abroad. Those students often have a tough time fitting back into the local school system, which relies on rote memorization to prepare students for rigorous university entrance exams.

But Fumi and Akemi are part of a new group of families seeing international schools, families that have never lived abroad.

The Japan External Trade Organization says there are about 40 English-based international schools in the country. The number has been rising over the past few years, and the schools are increasingly popular among Japanese families.

The main reason is parents want their children to speak English fluently. Japan increasingly is emphasizing the need to have multilingual workers.

Some families, however, are sending their children to international schools because they dislike Japan's education system.

Some critics say the push in Japanese schools to force students to memorize exam questions makes it hard for children to think creatively. And some parents complain that despite years of classes, students leave Japanese schools unable to speak English.

"I am certainly not critical of the Japanese system, said Thomas Walters, headmaster at the Nishimachi International School in Tokyo. "It is just that some families are looking for a different kind of system. The world is getting smaller and they are looking for an education for their children that will open up other opportunities within Japan and outside of Japan."

Students from 26 countries attend Nishimachi. About 20 percent of the children are Japanese.

The government does not track the number of Japanese children in international schools Nishimachi says in 2001, the number of Japanese parents inquiring about enrolling their children rose 25 percent from the previous year. Last year, the number of inquiries rose 32 percent.

While Fumi enjoys speaking two languages, her mother does see a drawback to an international education. She fears Fumi may not learn enough about her own culture.

Japanese students attending international schools may not be able to read and write their native language as well children at local schools. And they may miss out on detailed classes in Japanese history and culture.

For decades, that made getting into Japanese universities difficult, since the international school students were required to take a special high school equivalency exam before they could apply for college. That forced many high school graduates to go abroad to continue their education.

But in early March, Japanese education officials approved new rules, so that now the students attending Western-style schools can take the same university entrance exams as all other Japanese pupils.

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