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From Kindergarten To Kanji: Your Guide To First Grade in Japan

Last Updated on 2024-05-27 by Teni

 If your little one is starting first grade this month, congratulations! “From Kindergarten To Kanji: Your Guide To First Grade in Japan” unravels the mysteries of what awaits you and your child.

From school supplies checklist to daily grind and yearly event calendar, PTA memberships and after school daycare options, I’ve got you covered! So, grab a cup of coffee (or matcha latte), get comfy, and let’s prepare for a successful journey into Japanese elementary school life.

From Kindergarten To Kanji: Your Guide To First Grade in Japan 

This post contains affiliate links which means that The Wagamama Diaries makes a small commission of items you purchase at no additional cost to you

I’ve always wanted to supplement the motherhood & parenting section of the blog with my personal experiences as a mom of a first grader in Japan. But, I ultimately decided to wait until our first year of elementary school was officially done.

I’ll preface this post by saying it’s all based on my personal experiences and heartfelt, tearful talks with my Japanese mama tomo (mom friends). Therefore, as with all things in life in Japan, your millage may vary!

A Quick Overview of Japanese Elementary School

Your child’s elementary school will be determined based on where you live. If you have extenuating circumstances, you can file a petition to change your child’s designated school (指定校変更申立 // shi tei kou ken kou mou shi tate).

As many of you may already know, the Japanese school year starts in April. Therefore, enrollment in elementary school is open to children who will turn 7 years old after April 2nd.

This is where the concept of “hayaumare” (早生まれ) comes in, as children born between January 1 and April 1 are a nearly year younger than their classmates!

My daughter turned 6 in February 2023, but when she started first grade in April of the same year, some of her classmates were already 7 years old! Incidentally, she just turned 7, so we’ll be celebrating Shichi-Go-San this November.

The Japanese elementary school curriculum is determined by each school, according to MEXT guidelines.

In first grade, students study Japanese (国語 // koku go) mathematics (算数 // san suu), life studies (生活 // sei katsu), music (音楽 // on gaku), drawing & crafts (図工 // zu kou), and physical education (体育 // tai iku). There is also a class on ethics (道徳 // dou toku).

Your child will learn 46 hiragana, 46 katakana, 80 kanji, 2 digit addition and 2 digit subtraction in first grade.

Click to download as a PDF!

All classes are taught in Japanese. However, some regions offer special assistance for students who have difficulty in understanding the language.

If your child did not go to kindergarten or nursery school in Japan, it may be helpful for them to attend daycare before going to elementary school.

But, the goal of public school is to ensure that all kids have the same opportunity to learn. Therefore, Japanese class will start with the basics, regardless of student’s’ backgrounds.

On the other hand, if you child has already mastered hiragana/katakana and basic math, they may think school is boring. But, they will have fun in crafting, physical education, and just discovering life as a first grader!

Communication is Key!

I mention this because my daughter would always say that school is boring when I asked about her day. Yet, when I asked my Eiken prep kids about their school day, they were eager to chat.

Funny, right?

It turns out I wasn’t asking the right questions! So, I tailored the way asked my daughter about her school day. Instead of “How was school?” I ask these questions:

  • What classes did you have?
  • Who did you play with today?
  • What was your favorite thing about today?
  • Who got in trouble today? (My girl is very talkative. I usually hear from her Gakudo friends that she was scolded for talking during lesson time!)

You Should Know…

 

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It is still expected that moms will continue being the primary parent, especially in the first months of helping your child transition smoothly from kindergarten to first grade.  

In my case, I felt so unprepared despite all my years in Japan and experience working with children. I never went to elementary school in Japan, and nearly everything was new to me and I was constantly lost. 

I felt so much (internal) pressure throughout my daughter’s first term, comparing myself to Japanese moms and being jealous of couple where both parents were foreigners.

On top of that I had just started the process of separation with my ex-husband. I was constantly worried that if I screwed up, people would look at my daughter and think, “Well, her mom is a foreigner…it can’t be helped. I feel so had for her” (“Okaasaan wa gaijin dakara, shiu ga nai ne. Kawaisou dakedo...”)

So, my biggest piece of advice for foreign parents out there is to find a community, be it with your spouse, making new mama tomo, or online! 

NOTE: Elementary school consists of six years in total, but in this post I’ll be talking about first grade exclusively. There’s so many things that I wished I knew before my daughter started first grade!

First Grade Prep Begins in September of the Previous Year

Yes, you read that right. Getting ready for first grade begins in September of the previous year, when your child is in their last year of kindergarten (or daycare). 

August ~ September

Sometime in September (or late August, depending on municipality), you’ll receive a letter informing you of your child’s School Entry Health Checkup (就学時健康診断のご案内 // shuu gaku ji ken kou shin dan no go an nai.)

NOTE: If your child is a foreign national (that is, living in Japan with a “status of residency” and not Japanese citizenship), then you will need to go to your municipal office to enroll your child  in elementary school.

October ~ December

Once the weather cools down, your child will have their School Entry Health Checkup. Checkups take place at their designated elementary school on a weekday.

This is a comprehensive health check that includes a vision, dental, and hearing check. Pending the results of this health check up, you may need to take your child to a specialist before officially starting first grade in April.

After the health checkup, you will have a brief meeting with the principal and/or vice-principal. If your child has food allergies or if you have any concerns, this is a great opportunity to bring it up.

January ~ February

Orientation or “Parent Information Sessions” (保護者説明会 // ho go sha setsu mei kai) take place on a weekday in January.

You and all the other parents of first graders will meet in your child’s classroom, meet your child’s teacher, and find out all you need to know about elementary school life. You’ll also receive a school “guidebook” (おしおり // oshiori) along with a shopping list of all materials. 

Some parents may already know each other because their kids went to the same kindergarten/daycare. You may be asked to stand up and do a short self-introduction (自己紹介 // ji ko sho kai). This is a great time to get familiar with other parents who live nearby.  

March

In March, your child will have their farewell lunch/party and then will officially graduate kindergarten!

Make use of the 2 weeks between the end of kindergarten and the start of first grade to make sure you’ve got all your school supplies and anything else you may have missed.

Perhaps you’d like to help your child get familiar with their route to school or pick up some extra socks and t-shirts at UNIQLO! For a list of recommended shops, please read: My 5 Favorite Places to Shop in Japan For Kids’ Clothes and Shoes

April

Your child’s entrance ceremony (入学式 // nyuu gaku shiki) marks their official debut as a first grader! Last year’s first graders, AKA, the second graders, will have a welcome speech and/or performance. The sixth graders may also greet the new first graders.

After the entrance ceremony, kids will head to their classroom and receive their school supplies, all which must be labeled and returned to school the next day. There will also be a group photo with kids, parents, homeroom teacher, principal, and vice-principal.

For tips on what to wear, check out this post: What (Not) To Wear in Japan: A Guide For Professional Women.

You Should Know…

If you are using public transportation, this is a bittersweet moment as you’ll now have to pay transportation fees! With that said, be proactive in getting an IC card registered in your child’s name! Simply bring your child’s health insurance card or My Number card when you sign up at the train station.

What About Private Schools?

If you’re considering private elementary schools in Japan, then elementary school prep should coincide with your child’s first or second year of kindergarten.

In the “ideal” (by Japanese standards) scenario, your child is enrolled into an “elevator school.” These are education institutions where students enroll from kindergarten or elementary school until high school or even university. (This would be something like Mugen Academy, for all my Sailor Moon fans!)

In our case, we prepped for private Japanese elementary school by enrolling Miss M in a private kindergarten affiliated with an all girls’ elevator school. She also started Kumon because I, as a foreigner/the primary parent, wanted her to have a firm grasp of Japanese and cultural norms, too. 

Information sessions for Japanese public schools begin in September, though online sign-ups start in April. Generally speaking, the more competitive or prestigious the school, the more information sessions you’ll have to attend.

Entrance exams take place in October-November, and results go out in November-December.  Enrollment and welcome information sessions happen in January. We ultimately went the public school route, but I’ll write a separate post about private elementary schools in Japan.

Japanese Public Elementary School Fees

Tuition at Japanese public elementary schools is FREE.99.

However, textbooks, school lunches, uniforms, field trips, certain school materials (ex. melodion musical instrument, art set), PTA memberships, and other expenses are not covered. 

School fees are paid via bank transfer and withdrawn from your account monthly. (Typically on the last business day of the month).

You may have to open a bank account with a specific bank or credit union. This information will be given to you in January during the parents’ information session (保護者説明会 // ho go sha kai).

Monthly School Fees

  • Lunch (給食費 // kyuu shoku hi) and Textbooks (教材費 // kyou zai hi):  ¥8,000~ 
  • After School Care (学童保育費用 // gaku dou ho iku hi you) ¥5,000~ 
  • PTA (optional, paid once a year or per term or monthly): ¥5,000~

Single parent and low income househols may qualify for assistance. Please do not hesitate to contact your municipal office or talk to your child’s teacher during orientation.  

NOTE: PTA membership is optional and gets a bad rep in Japan as being run by overbearing housewives with too much free time. However, my experience was anything but! I unfortunately didn’t have time to attend many meetings, but I did participate in events. I definitely will be signing up again next school year.

Get Ready For First Grade – School Supply List

Click to download this checklist as a PDF!

If your child attended daycare or kindergarten in Japan, you’re in luck as many of those items can still be used in elementary school! Check out Getting Your Child Ready For Japanese Daycare or Kindergarten for all the essentials.

My daughter and her friends still use their bento boxes, water bottles, indoor shoes, tote bags, etc. from kindergarten. But, it’s also a good idea to have backups on hand! I personally chose to buy my daughter a new, larger water bottle and a brand new water bottle cover.

Each day, your child should bring the following items to school: communication notebook (連絡帳 // ren raku chou), pencil case (筆箱 // fude bako), unlined notebook  (自由帳 // ji yuu chou), water bottle (水筒 // sui tou), and lunch set (給食袋 // kyuu shoku bukuro).


You Should Know…

Pictured above is the standard pencil case for Japanese elementary school kids in grades 1-3. It is a two sided rectangular case.

Note how it perfectly fits 5 pencils (and one red pencil), a black permanent marker, one eraser, a pencil sharpener, and 15 cm ruler. Apparently only the older kids are permitted to use zipper type cases.

I initially thought this was an unwritten rule at my daughter’s school. But, after chatting with my Eiken prep kids in 1st and 2nd grade, it appears to be a universal unwritten rule!


On Monday, your child will bring their gym clothes bag, indoor shoes & shoes bag to school. These items will go home on Friday for washing.

The tote bag (手提げ袋 // te sage bukuro) only comes home when your child has art or oversized belongings, such as their dougu bako (道具箱), a box to store their textbooks and other school materials.

Randoseru have plenty of hooks that your child can use to attach all those bags and pouches!

I purchased this “5 bag set” back in October 2020, and it’s still holding up well! Pictured from left to right are the lunch bag, gym clothes bag, and indoor shoes bag.

Personalized items, like name stickers, name stamps, embroidered patches, and engraved pencils, may be delayed if you order them in March. Shop early for these supplies as all of your child’s items need to be clearly labeled (in hiragana):

How and where your child’s personal belongings should be labeled. Be sure to use hiragana!

Time-Saving Must-Haves:

Stamp Kit

Available on Amazon Japan

Name Stickers

Available on Amazon Japan

Name Patches

Available on Amazon Japan

Permanent Markers

Available on Amazon Japan

Personalized Pencils

Available on Amazon Japan

Know Before You Shop…

Although I created a shopping checklist, I strongly recommend waiting until you receive your school supply list. Your child’s school may have certain restrictions (such as bringing 2B pencils, no character goods, or ONLY white erasers). Or, some supplies might already be included in the school fees (like color pencils and crayons). 

In our case, my daughter’s school did not have a designated gym uniform. But, there was a specific cap and type of athletic indoor shoes that she needed. What’s more, these items are only available at a specific shop. 

(All those mom and pop clothing stores that never seem to go out of business despite having NO customers? Their entire business is likely propped up because they’re the designated school uniform retailer!)

FYI: Randoseru are NOT a requirement for Japanese elementary schools! (Unless your child is attending a private school, then it’s part of the school’s uniform.)

Those iconic backpacks are simply a fashion statement dating back to the Meiji Era, with the introduction of western military styles and nationwide adoption of the “Gakushuin” leather backpack worn by the young crown prince at the time. 

A Day In The Life of a First Grader in Japan 

Again, if your child already went to daycare or kindergarten in Japan, you will be familiar with the school event calendar. However, there are a few important changes when it comes to the school day, mainly the starting time of elementary school and the daily schedule.

Generally speaking, there is no school on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays. However, there are school events and even Saturday school.

Japanese kindergartens have a leisurely 9:00~9:30 drop-off and Japanese daycares accept morning arrivals as early as 7:15~7:30.

But, Japanese elementary school gates open around 8:00~8:15 and school activities begin at 8:30. The school day for first graders ends at around 13:30.

Each school day features a different combination of classes  (Japanese, mathematics, life studies, music, drawing & crafts, physical education and ethics).

You Should Know…

The first week of school, the first few days of a new term, and the last day of each term are always half-days without lunch. And for some reason, Wednesdays tend to be half-days, except the first graders eat school lunch, then go home. I don’t know why y’all, I still don’t know!

School Life (学校生活 // gakkou sei katsu)

Going To School (登校 // tou kou)

Children living in the same area will usually all go to school together in a group. This is why you’ll want to make use of the orientation in order to get to know as many parents as you can.

As first graders were literally kindergarteners just a few weeks ago, it’s not uncommon to see kids going to school with their parents. This applies to older kids, too! Every morning I see kids arriving with their parents, on foot, by bicycle, or even by car.

I know a big part of school life in Japan is independence and functioning as part of a team.  And, walking to school ~alone~ is sort of romanticized among expats.

But, honestly, if it makes logistical sense for you to accompany your child to school in the mornings or after school, then you should definitely do so.

It doesn’t have to be every day, but something that you or your spouse can work into your routine. This is a great way to get to spend time with your child and to get know your child’s friends, too!

Morning Meeting (朝会 // chou kai or asa no kai)

Each class does morning greetings, takes attendance, and listens to faculty talk about upcoming events. 

Morning Classes  (午前の授業 // go zen no jyuu gyou)

There are four classes, each 45 minutes long.  

School Lunch (給食 // kyuu shoku)

Lunch is 45 minutes long. Every day, your child will need to bring their water bottle, and a drawstring lunch bag which contains a luncheon mat and handkerchief.

FYI: Children attending gakudo (学童) after-school care on half-days will eat their (boxed) lunch in the gakudo room.

At lunch, all students eat lunch together in their classroom. Students set the table themselves and clean up after eating.

All children will take turns being “Lunch Assistants” (給食担当 // kyuu shoku tan tou) and will wear a headscarf, mask, and apron while serving lunch. 

Let your child’s homeroom teacher know if your child has allergies or other dietary restrictions.

In the case of allergies, you may need “proof” in the form of allergen blood test results. For severe allergies religious restrictions, it may be advisable to prepare a lunch for your child everyday.

A lunch menu will go home at the end of the previous month or the start of the new month.

Allergy kids will be notified of in advance of days where an allergen appears. Communication will include menu modifications and substitutions.

Recess (昼休み // hiru yasumi)

Students can freely spend their time outside on the school grounds, in the library, etc. 

Cleaning (掃除 // sou ji) 

Students clean the classrooms, hallways, restrooms, etc. by themselves. 

Afternoon Classes (午後の授業 // go go no jyuu gyou)

Depending on the schedule, there are days with afternoon classes and days without. It’s very important to check your child’s monthly calendar!

End of the Day Meeting (帰りの会 // kaeri no kai)

Students go over the next day’s schedule, their assigned homework, and school announcements. They’ll write in their renraku cho, or communication notebook, (in barely legible hiragana) throughout all of Term 1.

Around Term 2, students switch to print-outs or using Teams or a similar app on their tablets/iPads.

You Should Know…

Unlike the daycare or kindergarten communication notebook, you won’t be using these to communicate with your child’s homeroom teacher. If anything, it’s simply used as a tool to help kids practice their penmanship.

Ifyou do need to get in touch with your child’s teacher, write a letter or call the school. (I advise this in order to keep sensitive issues away from the eyes of curious classmates!)

Here’s a breakdown of the abbreviations your child may have in their renraku cho, or communication notebook.

  • (ji) short for “ji kan wari,” indicating what classes your child had that day. If it says “じ どおり,” it means that the day’s schedule went as planned.
  • しゅ (shu) short for “shuku dai,” meaning today’s homework.
  • (mo) short for “mochi-mono,” meaning items that need to be brought to school the following day.
  • (re) short for “ren shuu” meaning practice (i.e., practice writing kanji before tomorrow’s test).

Go Home (下校 // ge kou)

Each grade goes home in a group. But, some schools have the entire school go home together once a week.

School Events (行事 // gyou ji)

You will receive a yearly calendar during Orientation. Your child will come home with a class calendar at the beginning of each month to remind you of important dates and events.

My daughter and I each have cork boards in our rooms. We use it as a “command center” to keep track of school schedules, seasonal events, lunch menus, etc.

Term 1 (April ~ July) 

Health Check-Ups (健康診断 // ken kou shin dan)

These are series of comprehensive health checks that take place throughout April.

Doctors from local clinics and dentist offices will visit the school and perform specific medical checks (dental, vision, hearing, physical endurance, height/weight).

There will also be a separate day for collecting urine samples.)

Swimming (プール // pu-ru) 

From June to early September, all students will have swimming instead of gym class! On pool days, students bring a swimsuit, a swimming cap, and a towel to school.

Your child’s school may request a particular kind of swimsuit or a specific swimming cap color, so hold off on buying these until you get the specifics.  

Summer Vacation (夏休み // natsu yasumi)

A long vacation from around July 20th to August 31st. There will be homework! In our case, my daughter had to take care of a morning glory (朝顔 // asa gao) plant. Plus, she had to observe it, draw and photograph it, write a diary, then harvest its seeds (to give to next year’s first graders!).

We also did independent research (自由研究 // ji yuu ken kyuu) where we learned about Gunpla and Bandai’s recycling initiatives. 

Term 2 (September ~ December) 

Sports Day (運動会 // un dou kai)

A fun day where all school students participate in sporting events like relay races and tug-of-wars.

Recital (音楽会 // on gaku kai) & School Arts Festival (学芸会 // gaku ei kai )

These are music and art events performed and organized by the students and PTA. 

Winter Vacation (冬休み // fu yu yasumi)

A 2 week vacation from around December 24th to around January 6th. There will be homework! 

Term 3 (January ~ March) 

Spring Vacation  (春休み  // haru yasumi)

A 2 week vacation from around March 25th to around April 6th. There may or may not be homework.

Other Events 

Field Trips (校外学習 // kou gai gaku shuu)

Elementary school field trips have an educational twist. Students write a short report about what they did/saw. Some field trips require students to bring lunch from home.

Observation Day (授業参観 // jyuu gyou san kan)

This is a day for parents and guardians to come to school and observe classes. These can be held during the weekday or during Saturday school, and you can come and go whenever you want.

Parent-Teacher Conference (個人面談 // ko jin men dan)

You will meet with your child’s homeroom teacher in order to discuss their child’s school performance and any concerns that you may have. I had a meeting with my daughter’s teacher in Term 1 and again in Term 2.

Navigating the Pick-Up Maze of First Grade and After-School Care

This section will be expanded next week with its own post titled, “10 Things You Should Know About Gakudo.” In the meantime, here’s a brief look at your after-school care options as a parent of a first grader.

The Illusion of Freedom

As parents, we often fall into the trap of thinking that once our little ones are in first grade, we’ll have more flexibility in our schedules. Oh, how wrong we are! 

In Japan, the drop-off and pick-up times for elementary school can be just as rigid, if not more so, than those of daycare centers. So, what’s a working parent to do?

The Reality Check

Daycares have flexible leeway with drop-off and pick-up times such as 7:00 to 19:00. (Not to mention that nighttime daycares exist to accommodate the needs of 3rd shift employees!)

But, elementary schools in Japan operate on tight schedules. 

Keep in mind that elementary school gates open for children at or around 8:00. The school day for first graders typically ends around 13:30.

However, the first week of school, along with the first and last day of each term are usually half-days. Plus, you’ll also need to prepare a bento box.

Japanese schools offer onsite after-school programs (学童保育 // gaku dou ho iku). However, spaces are often limited and fill up quickly. Plus, these programs usually come with their own set of rules and regulations such as being needs based. (Ex. priority to single parent families and children with working parents.)

Registration forms are given out during Orientation and are also available at your municipal office or even online. There is a tight registration window if you’re aiming for an April start, so sign up ASAP!

Finding Solutions:

Community Support

Your municipal office may have a system of licensed workers who will pick-up and drop-off your child for a nominal fee.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to other parents in your area. Before moving, I ended up being that mom! I’d pick up my daughter’s classmate next door, and 5 or 6 kids would join us midway. No exaggeration! During summer Gakudo, I also adjusted my pickup time so neighborhood kids would have an adult walking with them partway.

This is probably a huge reason why my daughter adjusted to elementary school life and made friends quickly. Because I was the foreign mom and many kids got to know me through morning janken (rock-paper-scissors) battles and impromptu English lessons.

And, as the kids got to know me, they’d tell their parents about me. By Term 2, I had my own group of mama tomo!

Enlist Family Help

Easier said than done! BUT extended family can be invaluable resources for helping with drop-offs, pick-ups and watching the little ones until you finish work.

Utilize After-School Programs

Investigate local community centers or extracurricular activities that offer after-school care. Exploring different options could lead to a suitable solution and your child can learn a new skill, too!

Flexible Work Arrangements

Talk to your employer about flexible work hours or remote work options. Many companies in Japan are becoming more accommodating to the needs of working parents. Unfortunately, some industries simply just don’t have that option. 

Are you ready for first grade and beyond?

You’re now armed with the insider knowledge to make a smooth transition from kindergarten to elementary school. 

Remember, you’re not alone on this journey, so always feel free to reach out if you feel overwhelmed.

Here’s to a fabulous start to your child’s elementary school adventure in Japan! 

From Kindergarten To Kanji: Your Guide To First Grade in Japan 

Additional Reading

Gifu International Center Elementary School Enrollment Guidebook For Foreign Parents and Guardians. 

First Grade Kanji Cheat Sheet via Startoo.com

 

from kindergarten to kanji: your guide to first grade in japan pin

From Kindergarten To Kanji: Your Guide To First Grade in Japan 

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