For decades, Japanese schools have been famous for rigorous standards that produce well-trained children, who go on to master high-technology jobs. But increasingly, parents complain the educational system is too rigid and kills creativity, and many are taking their children out of school.
Eight-year-old Taishi Hanamoto has never gone to school. Instead, he studies at home, along with his younger sister.
"Every day, I study with my parents, using math textbooks and the Bible," he says. "I don't feel isolated, because I take karate lessons where I can exercise and meet friends. I am having fun studying at home."
Taishi does not study many of the subjects he would normally be taught at regular schools. His mother, Minako, explains why. "Schools do not teach children individually. My children can learn based on their needs. They do not sit at their desks to study many fields, because daily conversation and reading books will make up other subjects," she says. "I like having my children at home, because it allows me to see their growing process."
Taishi's education is unusual in Japan, but it is becoming less so. An increasing number of Japanese children are being taught at home. Japan's Home School Support Association says that about 4,000 students study at home. Most are elementary and middle-school students aged six-to-15.
Unlike students in Japan's famously rigorous schools, they have no minimum workload. In most cases, parents use textbooks and education programs to teach their children. With the increasing availability of the Internet, children also learn online, or use resources at libraries and museums.
While home schooling has been common for decades in the United States, Japanese families are only starting to adopt it. Kozo Hino is vice chairman for the Home School Support Association, which advises parents, and works to change the government's attitude about home schooling.
"We frequently get calls from families asking about home schooling. More of today's children want to learn individually," says Mr. Hino. "They have different reasons to start home schooling. Some children want to learn on their own. Others refuse to go to school, because they feel stress from the fierce academic system and dislike the problem of bullying."
While they are well known for producing students who can handle tough science and mathematics subjects, Japanese schools have a variety of problems. Schools here are known for rigid curricula that focus on memorizing tough exam questions. As a result, critics say, schools do not help children think creatively. Moreover, in Japan's traditionally conformist society, the schools have inadvertently fostered a system of bullying toward children who behave differently from others.
Because of that, some children become depressed and scared to go school. The Education Ministry says the number of students absent from school for a month or more has doubled to 140,000 in 10 years.
Those problems encourage families to try home schooling.
Mariko Komuro in Yokohama says her nine-year-old son, Kazutoshi, switched to home schooling two years ago. Mrs. Komuro says that her son did not get on well with the teacher, and one day, stopped going to school. She adds that her son smiles more now, and believes that home schooling is best for him.
Children have other reasons to stay at home. Some cannot attend school because of health problems.
On the island of Okinawa, Chiaki Watabe says her children physically could not attend school. Mrs. Watabe's two daughters are allergic to chemicals found at their former school, so they switched to home schooling five years ago. Mrs. Watabe says she is happy that her daughters are not getting sick anymore. She adds that they now have the chance to learn things that are not taught at school.
Some critics say home schooling does not help children learn to socialize with their peers. Parents reject that idea, saying their children interact with friends at parks and parties just as they would at school.
The primary obstacle to home schooling comes from the Education Ministry, which does not approve of it. Students normally receive a diploma when they finish high school, and need to produce it to be admitted to university. But home schoolers do not receive diplomas and have to take a separate set of exams to apply to university.
Parents complain that Japan has left few education choices for children. Mr. Hino, from the home school association, says the government is slowly becoming more lenient. Under the law, parents can be prosecuted for pulling students out of school. Although such cases are rare, some parents have been ordered to pay fines for teaching their children at home.
But Mr. Hino says that, since his association was created a few years ago, no families have been fined. He adds that the conservative Education Ministry does not force students to go to school, because the public increasingly demands a choice of different styles of education.