“An Inside Look At Kindergarten in Japan” is based on my own teaching experiences though I have made an effort to keep it neutral.
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 my insights will also be of help as you navigate the complex kindergarten system in Japan.
Recap: Daycare (保育園) Versus Kindergarten ( 幼稚園)
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 before getting into kindergarten life, school schedule, materials/textbooks, and school fees.
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.
That covers the basic difference between Japanese daycare and kindergarten. So, let’s take an inside look at kindergarten in Japan!
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!) If you need after school care, you’ll have to arrange pickup/drop off service for a hoikuen or look for facilities that offer on-campus after-hours care.
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 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 so 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
Before you buy any of the following, please confirm the specifics with your child’s kindergarten. They may have a rule against character-branded items, or request a certain style of indoor shoe (i.e. velcro straps versus slip-on.) All items link to Amazon Japan.
Water bottle (with a strap)
This style of water bottle is very popular, I do prefer these compared to the ones with the complicated latch or the ones with a cup. I’ve seem plenty of injuries involving full stainless steel water bottles, so I’d recommend holding off on the bigger bottles until your child is older.
I recommend that you avoid the ones that close with a band or the two tier ones. Instead, choose a bento box with flip tabs, like this one.
Depending on your child’s age, your kindergarten may request that you leave the chopsticks at home.
It’s always a good idea to invest in a pair of practice chopsticks. Be sure to check with your child’s kindergarten before sending them to school, though.
Tip 1: Attach an elastic or string to the tiny loop on the back of the shoes so your child will be able to pull them on!
Tip 2: Take a large sticker, slice it evenly down the middle, and affix the halves to the inside of your child’s shoes. That way, they’ll be less likely to mix up their left and right!
Let me explain this one in a bit of detail. You may heard the following horror story: “My child’s school wants us parents to literally make their child’s bags from scratch!” Don’t worry, Amazon Japan got your back. Simply search “入園 5点のセット” (nyuu en go ten setto) and find a set of cloth bags that your child likes. (Just be sure to confirm what your child’s kindergarten requires.)
In case you’re wondering, here’s the role of each of those 5 bags:
1. For the indoor shoes (the rectangle one)
2. For the soup cup/toothbrush (the mini drawstring bag)
3. For the bento box (the medium sized drawstring bag)
4. For spare clothing/PE clothing (the larger drawstring bag)
5. A matching bag large enough to fit the above (the tote bag)
Do yourself a favor a get a name stamp kit along with sticker labels so you’ll be able to label all of your child’s belongings with ease.
Comes with 10 stamps of various sizes, your choice of blue, red, or black ink pad, “image” stamp* of your choice, white ink pad, and storage box. (The image stamp is useful for kids who haven’t learned how to recognize their name. Choose a symbol that they will instantly be able to recognize as their own.)
This is a set of 295 colorful name labels. These are SO useful for labeling utensils, textbooks, bento boxes, and even things like crayons and pencils! You can also customize these with an “image character” so you child can easily identify his or her belongings.
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.
Kindergarten Fees in Japan
As with daycare, public and private kindergarten fees vary widely. However, public kindergartens are “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.”
What this means is: If your child is going to a public/authorized kindergarten, you will not have to go to your municipal office for paperwork.
FYI: ”Free” doesn’t exclude you from paying for school meals, uniforms, textbooks/materials, and maintenance fees!
Those with children attending private/unauthorized schools will need to visit their municipal office for the appropriate paperwork, which includes parents’ certificate of employment.
Please note that “free kindergarten” actually means that you will be reimbursed for kindergarten fees. This means that you will have to pay your child’s kindergarten tuition fees THEN apply for reimbursement via your municipal office. It’s a lot of paperwork, so research thoroughly and check with your local government for details.