Last year, when I started gathering info on Japanese kindergartens for my daughter, I realized that I needed to overhaul my posts on daycare and kindergarten in Japan. Editing “An Inside Look At Kindergarten in Japan” is the first step. I’ve expanded the kindergarten prep section and added info on public/private kindergartens and what to do about toilet training.
If you’re looking for information on international kindergartens. please see this post: Sending Your Child to International or Japanese Kindergarten.
This post contains affiliate links.
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 in Japan.
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 and 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).
Find out more about daycare in Japan here: An Inside Look At Daycare in Japan
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, respectively. 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!
The information below will cover “Japanese” private and public kindergartens
and not international kindergartens, which is something that I’m working on. (UPDATE: Sending Your Child to International or Japanese Kindergarten is now LIVE!)
An Inside Look At Kindergarten in Japan
A standard kindergarten day starts at 9:30 am and finishes at 2:30 pm. On top of this, Wednesdays, for some reason, are half days (or maybe that’s just the schools in my area?!) This short schedule makes it incredibly difficult for full-time working parents to juggle work and childcare.
In my case, I find that Japanese kindergarten is incredibly demanding when it comes to
parent mom participation. I have a very flexible schedule as a full-time content creator and the founder of a beauty startup.
Still, I must admit that I find it very difficult at times to juggle my own work and kindergarten events like parent observation days, in-school lunch days, and whatever else is on the calendar. (With that said, this is the first time that I’ve been able to participate in school affairs solely as a parent, and without doing double duty as a teacher!
Some kindergartens do offer after-school services (保育 | hoiku), alongside after school classes like swimming, dance, martial arts, English, etc. Do keep in mind that they fill up extremely quickly. 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.
- Are run by the local administrative government
- 2 year program (for children aged 4+)
- Average tuition is 223,364 yen/year
- Children commute by walk or bicycle
- Curriculum focused on autonomy/independence
- Are run by incorporated educational institutions or social welfare corporations
- 3 year program (for children aged 3+)
- Average tuition is 527,916 yen/year
- Children commute by school bus
- Curriculum focused on education
Info taken from https://hoikutizu.jp/articles/nursery-recruitment/kindergarten-preparation (link in Japanese).
Japanese Kindergarten Grades
年少 (Nenshou) 3-4 years old
年中 (Nenchuu) 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)
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)
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)
*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 field trips (遠足 | ensoku), physicals (健康診断 | kenkou shindan), and dental checkups (歯科検診 | shika kenshin).
Oh, and I should also probably mention events that require parent participation like festivals, school plays and art exhibitions… parent observation days…school assembly days… parent teacher meetings (and PTA memberships)!
Depending on the type of kindergarten (private or public) your child’s kindergarten uniform may be simple or elaborate or no uniform at all.
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.) Some schools require the uniform to be worn everyday; other schools only wear uniforms on certain days of the month.
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.
What Your Child Needs For Kindergarten in Japan: A Shopping List
Please see this post Getting Your Child Ready For Japanese Daycare or Kindergarten for everything you need to prepare!
Getting into Kindergarten
Like daycares, getting into kindergarten in Japan can be tricky, especially if you’ve got your eye on a prestigious private facility. And just like daycares, kindergartens hold information sessions in October, accept applications in November, and results go out in December.
NOTE: These institutions do offer admission on a rolling basis. So, you can enroll/transfer throughout the school year provided that there is an opening!
Family “interviews” or a solo interview with your child may also be part of the process.
Competitive schools may ask that you attend several information sessions and interviews.
These interviews may consist of questions about your parenting style/family life, while questions towards your child are like, “What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your favorite color?”
Faculty may be curious to know if your child recognizes the alphabet/hiragana, knows the names of animals/shapes or can do a basic self introduction. (Konnichiwa. Watashi wa ____ desu. ___ sai desu. | Hi. My name is _____. I’m ____ years old.)
There is an “unofficial” dress code for these events, which is one step up from a funeral and a few notches down from an entrance ceremony. Take a look at what parents (mainly moms) should wear!
Here’s the outfit that my daughter wore for her “interview.” (BTW, I got everything via Carry-On, one of My 5 Favorite Places to Shop in Japan for Baby and Toddler Clothes).
Diapers, Toilet Training, and Kindergarten
If you are applying for entrance into the 3 year old kindergarten class (年少 | Nensho), you might wonder if your child needs to be toilet trained before starting school in April.
I understand your concern. But, unfortunately, that’s something that I can’t answer in this post because all schools are different.
At my school, a few years ago, we had a debate on whether we should require new 3 year old kids to be fully potty trained.
But the reality is, all kids mature differently.
Personally, I think it’s unreasonable.
Especially if students haven’t been in daycare prior to entering kindergarten. They’re suddenly in a new environment, without parents, and they have to use the “scary” toilet. It’s too much to ask from parents.
But, as a teacher, I can understand the disruption when you have 15-20 kids and then you have to stop class to change clothes.
At the same time, dealing with children’s bodily fluids is all part of the job (lol), so don’t be afraid to address your concerns with your child’s teacher. If we know what’s going on, we can add extra toilet time to the class routine or can easily pick up on your child’s cues when they need to go to the toilet.
Again, some kindergartens require that kids be potty trained before their first day of school. In that case, once you get accepted, start potty training and see how things go leading up to the first day of school.
My daughter was pretty good about going to the toilet at home. But, when she was in nursery school or when we go out, I put her in the thick, 6 -layer (６層) toilet training pants. Your kid’s bottom will look really full, but at least there will be some protection against accidents.
Don’t forget to add extra pairs of pants to your child’s spare clothing set. If they come home with soiled clothes, send a replacement set the next day. PLEASE!
Kindergarten Fees in Japan
As with daycare, public and private kindergarten fees vary widely. However, public kindergartens are “free” from October 1, 2019.
FYI: ”Free” doesn’t exempt you from paying entrance fees, bus fees, insurance, snacks/lunch, uniforms, textbooks/supplies, and maintenance fees!
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.”
If your child is going to a public/authorized kindergarten, you will not have to go to your municipal office for paperwork. Everything will be taken care of by submitting documents to your child’s kindergarten.
Those with children attending private/unauthorized schools may need to visit their municipal office for the appropriate paperwork, which includes parents’ certificate of employment (especially in the case of applying for after school hoiku/daycare).
Please note that in this case, “free kindergarten” actually means that you will be reimbursed for kindergarten fees. You will have to pay your child’s kindergarten tuition fees up front 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.