“An Inside Look At Kindergarten in Japan” is based on my own teaching experiences though I have made an effort to keep it neutral.
(A separate post will detail how I got into teaching and what I think about early childhood education in Japan. Stay tuned!)
I teach at a private kindergarten in Japan and this blog (formerly Baby Kaiju and now The Wagamama Diaries) has been up for about 2 years. Yet, I don’t have a post about kindergarten in Japan (or teaching in Japan, for that matter).
My post about daycare in Japan, on the other hand, has been shared so many times prior to the blog relaunch. I hope this new post will also help out parents in Japan
Recap: Daycare (保育園) Versus Kindergarten ( 幼稚園)
I briefly touched on Japanese kindergartens in my daycare post because the terms 幼稚園 (yochien) and 保育園 (hoiken) are used interchangeably but they are fundamentally different institutions.
Actually, understanding the difference is confusing at first, even for Japanese parents. I’ll just go over the difference one more time before explaining Japanese kindergarten life.
Let’s start things off by going over the basic difference between daycare and kindergarten facilities in Japan.
Daycare is hoikuen (保育園) in Japanese. It’s for infants (yes) 56 days old up to kids 6 years old.
Daycare falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), who administers the daycare worker (保育士 | houkushi) license.
The primary purpose of daycare in Japan is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for babies and children while their primary caretaker is at work.
Meals are provided (at most facilities) and children develop language and social skills through interaction with friends amand gross/fine motor skills through play.
Daycares in Japan operate Monday through Friday, and Saturday depending on the location.
Some daycares operate 24 hours or at night to accommodate parents who work second or third shifts. Other daycares offer temporary care on an “as needed” basis (一時保育 | ichiji hoiku).
So far, daycare sounds like a great option if you’re a working parent. What exactly does kindergarten in Japan have to offer?
Kindergarten is exclusively for kids who are 3 years old up until they enter first grade.
I want to stress this major difference between kindergartens and daycares in Japan:
Kindergarten falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education (MEXT) and its purpose is to prepare children for first grade and beyond. This is done through through academics, English classes, and music/physical education classes and standards set by MEXT.
There are both private and public kindergartens in Japan, which are further classified as “authorized” (認可 | ninka) and “unauthorized” (無認可 | muninka).
You might be wondering how in the hell an “unauthorized” school is able to operate.
MEXT and MHLW set standards for kindergartens and daycares. This includes student:teacher ratio, facility size, lunch menus and so on.
“Unauthorized” in this case may mean a school smaller than government standards; a non need based tuition model; or simply a different lunch menu than the one set by local government. “International” kindergartens tend to fall into the muninka category.
Some parents in Japan are picky about choosing the “right” kindergarten for their child, especially if they have projected lifetime goals that include entrance to a private (and competitive) elementary school.
An Inside Look At Kindergarten in Japan
A standard kindergarten day starts around 9 or 10 am and finishes at around 2 or 3 pm. This short schedule makes it incredibly difficult for full-time working parents to juggle work and childcare.
Some kindergartens do offer after-school services, but they are rarely used. This likely means that you child may be one of a handful of kids waiting for their parents (or the only student sometimes!)
Sidenote: I’ve noticed that Japanese lifestyle magazines aimed at women in their 30s use the term “youchien mama” (幼稚園ママ) to categorize women with kids in kindergarten.
To me, it seems like “youchien mama” is just a posh way of saying “housewife” (主婦 | shufu). After all, if your kids only attend school from 9 to 2pm it’s hard to hold down a full-time job.
But, by putting emphasis on “kindergarten” it’s a mom’s way to show that she’s all hands on deck when it comes to her child’s education and future.
(There’s also the belief that a woman who is a housewife has a husband earning a high salary, but this fails to consider the women who want to return to work but can’t. I’ll save this rant for later though. Just to be clear, I have nothing against housewives, simply pointing out this trend.)
Japanese Kindergarten Grades
年少 (Nensho) 3-4 years old
年中 (Nenchu) 4-5 years old
年長 (Nenchou) 5-6 years old
If it’s confusing, it may help to focus on the kanji.
少 means “small,” so 3 year old kindy kids are the smallest in their school.
中 means “middle”
長 means “long” (or senior in this case)
Yearly Events (年間行事)
Mochi making (もちつき大会 | mochi tsuku taikai)
Graduation ceremony for nenchou kids (卒園式 | sotsuen shiki)
Spring break (春休み)
Entrance ceremony for nenshou/new kids (入学式 | nyuugakushiki)
Welcome ceremony for enrolled students (始業式 | shigyoushiki)
Cherry Blossom Viewing Summer Festival (お花見 | ohanami)
Field trip (遠足 | ensoku)
Sports Day (運動会 | undoukai)
Pool time (プールびらき | pool biraki)
Summer Festival (夏祭り | natsu matsuri)
Summer holidays (夏休み | natsu yasumi)
Sports Day (運動会 | undoukai)
Winter break (冬休み | fuyu yasumi)
*Event timings vary by kindergarten ao be sure to confirm with your child’s school
**Sports Day may be held in spring or fall
Other events include physicals (健康診断 | kenkou shindan and dental checkups (歯科検診 | shika kenshin)
What your Child Needs For Kindergarten
Depending on the type of kindergarten (private or public) your child’s kindergarten uniform may simple or elaborate.
Public school uniforms tend to consist of a school hat, an apron or smock, and a satchel or backpack.
When it comes to private schools, it’s all about a uniform that will distinguish your child from “other” kindergartens. In some cases, we’re talking about summer and winter uniforms, with designated bags, shoes, and even socks. (This is more in line with posh schools, though.)
Each school will have a different school supply list but you can count on the renrakucho (communication notebook) as the primary means of communication with your child’s teacher.
One thing that is the same when it comes to kindergarten are their school buses with cheerful teachers whizzing round town in the mornings and early afternoons.
Kindergarten Fees in Japan
As with daycare, public and private kindergarten fees vary widely. However, public kindergartens will be free from October 1, 2019.
From a Japan Times article published on December 28, 2018, days after the preschool subsidy program was approved:
“[F]ees at all authorized [認可] preschools [幼稚園] will be scrapped for children aged between 3 and 5 while a monthly subsidy cap of ¥25,700 will be set for some private kindergartens [私立幼稚園」. The cap means eligible families will have to make up the difference on fees that go above the state threshold.
For unauthorized [無認可] preschools, the subsidy cap will be set at ¥37,000 per month for those aged between 3 and 5 and at ¥42,000 for children aged 2 and younger. School meals will be charged separately.”
From what I’ve gathered so far, if your child is going to a public/authorized kindergarten, you will not have to go to your municipal office for paperwork. Those with children attending private/unauthorized schools will need to visit their municipal office. In either case, it’s a good idea to do research and check with your local government.
I think I’ve covered the basics of kindergarten in Japan, so next I’ll get into the personal side of teaching kindergarten.