It’s October — have you already narrowed down your list of kindergartens for the 2021 school year? I have no idea what’s in store for 2021, or what to expect from COVID-19. When I started gathering info on Japanese kindergartens for next year, 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.
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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. 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! This section will cover “Japanese” private and public kindergartens and not international kinderartgens, which is something that I’m working on .
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 (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
- 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
- Children commute by school bus
- Curriculum focused on education
Info taken from https://hoikutizu.jp/articles/nursery-recruitment/kindergarten-preparation (link in Japanese).
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.
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 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. ____ desu. San sai desu. | Hi. My name is _____. I’m three 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.!
I already got a super cute outfit for my daughter to wear 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 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, you can start potty training and see how things go leading up to the first day of school.
I’d say that my daughter is pretty good about going to the toilet and has many dry nights. But, when she was in nursery school or when we go out, I ask her to wear 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!
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 in Japan: A Shopping List
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.
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.
Tip: the o-ring needs to be taken out and cleaned daily!
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. As with the water bottle, the o-ring on a bento box needs to be removed and cleaned daily! You won’t believe how easily mold grows on it!
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.
Opt for something with a handle to make drinking easier for your child.
This is essentially a placemat to keep your child’s area at the lunch table clean. Cloth ones are better than vinyl/slip resistant ones because they tend to not collect mold as easily. (I’m telling you, I’ve seen a lot of moldy stuff in my years!)
Your child will have at least three of these at school on any given day. One on their person for drying their hands after going to the toilet, another in their lunch bag, and another as a backup. Note that some kindergartens may prefer hand towels which have a loop on them.
Your child will get their first taste of big kid life and being responsible for one’s own items! The clip-on pouches are essentially a large cargo pocket that holds a packet of facial tissues and a hand towel.
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 the measurements of 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, also used to send home artwork, etc.)
Name Stamps & Stickers
Do yourself a favor a get a name stamp kit along with sticker labels. This way, you’ll be able to label all of your child’s belongings with ease. You will need to label EVERYTHING, so try to make things easy on yourself!
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.
These iron-on patches are great for labeling large cloth items like art smocks, the large tote bag, indoor shoes bag, and so on. This particular item is a set of 3 patches available in different characters and your child’s name can be written in hiragana or romaji.
Depending on the type of kindergarten (private or public) your child’s kindergarten uniform may be 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.
FYI: ”Free” doesn’t exclude you from paying entrance fees, bus fees, insurance, school meals, 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 will 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).
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.