Choosing the right international school in Tokyo

Tokyo has plenty of international schools for international families, but the process and best practices associated with choosing the best possible choice for families hasn’t been published well which is what this article is about.

The general rule of thumb is that you should start looking at the different options as soon as possible. Searching online to get a feel for the different schools is good, but if you are certain you will be moving to Tokyo, then you should be reaching out and contacting the school you like either by email or telephone.

It is imperative to have a plan B and C that is ready to be actioned on in the event your first choice falls through. Due to limited availability, many schools simply won’t have the space to accept your child, however academic requirements are also a factor in the screening process and in recent years with the growing demand for international education in Tokyo the more prominent schools have become more selective with their student admittance.

The reason for this is because waiting lists for international schools have risen over the last 5 years and while bicultural families in Tokyo have grown, the international school system capacity has not grown to match the increase in demand.

Even if a school does not have a space available when you are looking, it is best to get in an application as soon as possible to get priority in the waiting list. Since families often move unexpectedly in international schools, even if the admissions team does not anticipate a space opening there is always a possibility.

We have seen many schools doing what they can to expand. Tokyo International School, for example, is making plans to open a high school division in 2020 and Yoyogi International School, which was originally just for pre-school/kindergarten age ranges, but acquired a second building and established a primary school in recent years which has grown to cover up to Primary 6 (corresponding to the US 6th grade and the UK Year 6 academic program).

International schools have what is called rolling admissions meaning they generally allow students to enter anytime throughout the academic year, however the older a child is, especially if they are in high school where yearly attendance can impact how credits are received, then it is best to have them enroll at the start of the school year or in January at the beginning of the second semester.

Which brings up another point in that the younger the child, the easier it will be to enroll them into a school. Tokyo has less than a dozen international high school options, a little more than a dozen elementary and middle school options, and over sixty preschools, so there are significantly more options for the younger age groups.

Finding the right school can be especially difficult for families with children with special needs, which many international schools do not have the resources to support. The American School in Japan has a learning support group with limited spaces for students with mild learning support needs, and International Secondary School accepts applications from students needing light learning support.

One school that stands out for creating a welcoming environment for the varying types of special needs students is Yamato International School. The school, which has an American-style curriculum, was founded by a single parent after her son was diagnosed with severe intellectual and physical disabilities. Thus, when the school was founded in 2002, there was a heavy emphasis on having a full-fledged special needs curriculum found nowhere else in Tokyo.

It is highly recommended to call the school directly and explain your family’s situation if you have special needs for your child’s education to get the best information possible.

In terms of costs which vary depending on the relative prestige of the school, it can be anywhere between 1.5 million JPY to 3 million JPY for the first year with lesser costs for second year and onwards. High schools tend to be a little more expensive than the younger divisions.

Popular preschools can fetch upwards of 3 million JPY to enroll with the second year onwards being roughly 2.5 million JPY.

For those looking at local Japan schools, please be aware that there is no strong program in place in Japan to support nonnative Japanese speakers. As a result, without the child knowing how to speak Japanese, application to local schools can be very difficult if not impossible.

Additionally, if the parents cannot speak Japanese, communication with school staff and government offices related to the school sign up will be very challenging. If your kids can speak and read fluently at a level commensurate with their future classmates then there would generally be no problem.

However, in the case your children can not speak Japanese, then it is common that local schools are only a realistic option for preschool children. Preschool in Japan is neither mandatory nor guaranteed, and admission is based on a points system giving preference to families where both parents work or facing other hardships.

Minato & Shibuya wards in Tokyo have always had a foreign presence and thus have English pages on their websites telling people how they can go about enrolling their kids into school.

Minato Ward
Guide to Nursery School Enrollment (PDF – English)
Availability (Japanese, but if you press the English button on the top right it will generate an automatic translation of the page)

Shibuya Ward
Childcare/Nursery Details (English).
Availability (English.)

For local preschools, it is worthy to note that availability is an issue (even for locals), and Meguro and Setagaya wards in particular have waiting lists so long that by the time kids can get next in line to get into preschools, they very well may have aged to a point where they are too old for preschool at all.

So, regardless of whether you will send your kids to international school or to a local Japanese school, the best thing you can do is start your search and contact schools as early as possible.

Editor’s Note: Marissa Arai is a long time veteran of the Tokyo relocation and leasing world. Her weekly column looks at selecting real estate with a much greater focus on the overall relocation process and how real estate should be chosen within that framework. Her insights are a must for people moving to Tokyo no matter what stage of the relocation process.