Sunday, September 13, 2015

Yochien 幼稚園 - Starting Preschool in Japan - What it Means for Your Child, Time, Wallet, and Sanity

Figure 1: Specifications for a box to contain a child's tools for playtime.
Note the needlessly specific specifications that make what would be a 
simple trip to the 100-yen store many times as expensive in time and money.


Executive summary

Preschool education in Japan is an over-subscribed, unstandardised mess. I'll surely be glad my child attended, but it's everything that needs to be done until then that riles every rational bone in my body. My choices of education appear to be "no education until age 6" or "Christian preschool", complete with vaguely-defined charges and mandatory DIY children's accessories.

Warning. Applying for preschool in Japan may make you homesick.


Herein lie the experiences of one fallible man and his family, trying to make ends meet on the fringe of Tokyo. I'm unsure of how relevant my experience is to anyone else in the country. Additionally, I was educated in the United Kingdom, which schooled me at negligible expense, albeit in the soggy, grey sort of way that everything tends to happen in the UK. This under-exposure to financial hardship* has undoubtedly clouded the glass through which I see the Japanese education system**.

*I would like to point out that this isn't due to having wealthy family; unlike many so-called "university students", I underwent the increasingly rare right-of-passage of making it through university without a stipend from my parents.

** Or indeed the health system, real-estate, etc., etc..


When to get your child educated***

I approached childcare with the same angle I use with most things; "Can it wait?" To be fair, I've spent much of the last year ensuring I've had the financial stability required to relocate my wife and children from Kagawa*4 to Saitama, and prior to that, getting my foot in the door of a university in Tokyo.

Nonetheless, the technical answer is "yes", compulsory schooling starts with primary school*5, and so my daughter will be joining the local preschool at the ripe age of 5. Nonetheless, this being later than I started school, I've been keen on getting my daughter some form of education for a long time now, and while my wife was in hospital, I used kindergarten to care for my daughter while I went to work*6. Anyway, pre-schools (which is what I will call "yochien" here) are generally entered from ages 3-6.

*** Yes, I will keep writing second-person for my titles, despite the first-person narrative; this is a blog for the grammatically masochistic. I will also keep up the footnotes, just to make things even less tidy. 

*4 Land of Udon, temples, and -if you ask the Japanese- more udon.

*5 Or "elementary school", if taxation without representation upsets your sensibilities.

*6 I survived a total of 2 months in a 1R ("one-room"*7) flat in Yokohama whilst supporting my daughter and trying to successfully translate for money, and write research documents for the promise of money. Those single parents that do that sort of thing every day of their parenting lives deserve all the help they can get. And a medal.

*7 The "One room" being a combined bedroom and kitchen. Toilets and hallways are not counted in Japanese estate agentese.

Finding education for your child

So, having successfully ported my family from Kagawa to Saitama*8, our first priority was to get our daughter's education sorted. Therein manifested problems 1 and 2, which are "the lack of preschools" and "nursery school requirements", respectively.

Within walking distance of my fledgling, car-less family are precisely 2 preschools, thus we're very short on options. Both preschools are ostensibly Christian schools*9, and more-or-less at maximum capacity. This led us to broaden our search to include nursery schools ("hoikuen"), which would be less educational and more focused on play. Given that many preschools also take the play-focused approach, hoikuen are a reasonable approximation of preschools, and tend to be far more numerous (with at least 3 within a 8-minute walk of our house).

However, it quickly became apparent that the nursery schools were not an easy option due to their requirement that both parents be working. We reasoned that we could probably weasel our daughter in by using our 4-month-old son as reasonable grounds for not having sufficient time to spend on our daughter; however, my wife discovered through conversation that it is likely that such an application would likely be refused. Additionally, my wife was concerned about the possibility that our daughter might be taken out of nursery school when our son reached a more "manageable" age of 1. Thus, I remain slightly sceptical about the existence of this problem, as due to the above concerns we never proceeded as far as making an application.

*8 Still have some incompatibility issues due to unmet dependencies for Sanuki Udon (I currently live above an udon shop, and have yet to eat there because "udon in Saitama is so expensive"); however, as a quick workaround, there is always ramen.

*9 Which should be a non-issue, given my primary school education included prayer each morning; however, now that I've given in to rational thought, the idea of someone teaching my children that, essentially, fairies are responsible for all of the mysteries of this world... Doesn't sit too well with me.

Applying for education for your child

Eventually we settled on the larger of the 2 preschools in the area, and they offered us a look around. The staff were helpful, kindhearted people of the sort you might hope to find in a preschool. Additionally, my fears of brainwashing were belayed by assurances that the preschool honoured the spirit of Christianity more so than the actual spirits of Christianity. They even gave me a rhinovirus so that I could get an authentic preview of childhood education as viewed from a father's perspective. Excellent! Where do I sign up?

The preschool provided us with the application form after we visited them for the tour. However, of course, once signed, there is the issue of financing this little endeavour. The nyugakuhi ("school entrance fee") for our chosen institution was 90,000 yen. Given that I'm fed up with the aforementioned delays to our daughter's education, and my eagerness to have the school accept our application, I've not been so crass as to ask what that money is used for; however, I will point out that I will also be paying additional initial costs of around 20,000 yen for equipment/clothing etc., and a monthly fee (of around 20,000 yen) too. Assuming the monthly fee covers teaching expenses, and the equipment will be paid for or provided by ourselves, I do wonder, for a preschool with about 20 children per teacher, "what on earth is this sum of money for?"

Preparing your child yourself for preschool

Occasionally, I am suddenly struck by the fact I am here, in Japan, living my dreams amidst that misty, bamboo'd, fairytale image of the East that drew me here in 2007. Sometimes, rather than be "struck" by this magnificent contrast, I am entirely bowled over*10.

By far the biggest surprise, even more so than the existence of a entry fee for preschool*11, was the outline of "things to do before your child enters school". It starts out asking for a photo of the family together (fair enough, I guess, over 100 kids, they're going to want some visual reference, though I'll be damned impressed if Teacher of class A knows which parents a pupil of class G belongs to, even with photos). It continues with a reasonable list of items such as a rucksack, scissors, etc., and specifications for those items. This is where things go a bit odd "Letter bag. This is a blue, vinyl bag. It is used to store letters at the preschool." Is a "letter bag" really necessary? How about the rucksack, that's also a container for holding things, right? "Album: We make an album with pictures that the child has drawn, which is for the graduation ceremony." OK, so having not attended either of my higher education ceremonies, I'm biased here, but a graduation ceremony for 6-year olds? I knew they had them for primary school, but damn it that is just pretencious. 

Things get worse. On the next page "Items to be prepared yourself", the words prepared yourself are key here: "Smock: ... The instructions for making the smock will be explained during the meeting for school entry preparations". 

I'm sorry. I must have read that wrong. No, it really does say that. We're obliged to make a smock, as we shall learn at the "meeting for school entry preparations"*12. Wow, Japan. Just wow. Global trade, record quality control at reasonable prices and we have to make our own child's clothing now? I mean, I know this smock is just to keep dirt off the expensive clothes, but it would literally be quicker to go to the second hand store clothes and grab something there. Probably cheaper too, as now we need to buy everything necessary to make a smock from scratch.

I know I'm getting rhetorical now, but really! I can use trains as fast as helicopters, watch robots play badminton*13, access lightning fast internet, and eat possibly the most refined food in the world, but children's clothing is a DIY job? Somebody pass the education system a link to wikipedia, they have a lot of catching up to do...

We also need to make an additional 2 bags: 1 for a cup, and one for a lunchbox. As if lunchboxes with handles never existed. Another two bags are also requested, which we'll buy if possible, but they have very precise size specifications (32 cm by 45 cm and 30 cm by 35 cm). We also need to make a "child's tool box", 9 by 15 by 28 cm, "please attach decorations (buttons, ribbons, pieces of felt, lace etc.) as desired". 

I asked my wife whether this strange list of DIY necessities might have something to do with a vestigial post-war "make do and mend" approach to preparing children's things for school, and she said "yes, probably. But we have so many more things these days, so they've probably all been added too". She also says that the above isn't a particular surprise to her, and that the main concern of parents will be in finding materials unique enough to befit their pretenciousness*14. 

Apparently, there also exist companies that will make the above items (this link is Japanese), and these can cost  more than what you might pay for branded items. So, there is hope for those with more money than time, but not much hope for common sense.

*10 Such that I even write blog articles subtly(?) infused with impotent rage!

*11 Hell, I've paid "key-money" twice and I was informed enough to be rightly surprised when my deposit for my 1R in Yokohama was actually returned to me! Anything that is slightly "one-off" in Japan, such as entering an institution or changing address, seems to have at least one vaguely-defined fee attached.

*12 "Yeap. That's it, I'm writing that blog article."

*13 To be honest, I randomly witnessed this through the window of one of the halls of the university I work at while I was walking home one night, so that was one of those "some things money can't buy" moments

*14 not exactly in those words, mind.


Preschool is set to drain my wallet, my time, and my patience. I only hope that my daughter gains, through socialising with people of her own age, what my wife and I cannot teach her at home.


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