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Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012
Acceptance — social and otherwise — a crucial issue for Japan returnee kids
Last in a two-part series
Last week we addressed academic issues and the timing of school enrollment in response to Floyd's question regarding his son reentering the Japanese education system after living abroad for several years. In this week's column we look at potential social issues, being accepted to a good high school, and communication.
One factor to consider for any bicultural kid reentering the Japanese school system (and often for those already in it) is the potential for social problems. As Stewart Dorward briefly mentioned last week, if your son starts junior high as a first-year, he'll have more chances to make friends before they've established cliques, which typically last through junior high.
Some schools have good support systems in place for dealing with bullying and social exclusion, while many schools, despite their best efforts, aren't able to control it; unfortunately, bullying often happens under the radar.
Though any child may potentially be at risk for bullying, returnees (Japanese or non-Japanese) and those who aren't "full" Japanese are particularly vulnerable, and such students often experience bullying or exclusion to some degree.
Masayoshi Sogabe — who was born in Japan, raised in Los Angeles and returned to Kanagawa for junior high and high school — admits that bullying was a big problem for him. "It was hard for me to make friends so I tried to hang out with other returnee students who were in the same situation," he writes.
Stewart also suggests that "your child may want to hide the fact they can speak English (or will speak it with a fake katakana accent) in order to fit in at school."
This may change in the near future, and indeed it already has in many schools. Some parents of returnees say that their kids do well at school and have many friends.
Mary Nobuoka is one such parent. "My son, who is 'half' but doesn't look at all Japanese, has been very well-accepted by his peers and teachers," she explains. "We had one experience in the first grade with a violent kid — some might consider him to have been a bully.
"However, I was thoroughly impressed with the way the teacher and school officials intervened and resolved the problem. Yes, resolved it. The child's interaction with both adults and his peers was very different by the end of the year."
Bettina Gasser adds: "There are also students who, after having spent some years abroad, enter a normal Japanese high school, but I did not hear of any problems they had (they were often called kakkoi (cool) because of their English)."
When it comes to getting into a good high school, you'll probably find that it varies by school and location in Japan. Some institutions, usually higher-level private or public schools, and typically in larger cities, have a set number of admission spots set aside for returnees and non-Japanese students.
Masayoshi was able to take a special high school entrance exam for returning students, which included an English test and interview. He was able to get into the top high school in Kanagawa, but it's also worth noting that, he says, "I wanted to go to a local public school to make friends around where I live. It took me two hours on the train just to get to school."
Admission to schools with advanced English programs can also be very competitive, as Mary describes:
"Even returnees need to go to juku (cram school) to do well — most bilingual kids raised in Japan will have little chance to get in because of the overseas cultural-knowledge handicap. At one school, over 200 of the many applicants, applying for fewer than 100 seats, got perfect scores on the written exam. Their entrance is determined by an interview."
That said, some schools, such as in the case of Janina LaMattery (see last week's column), may not be as open to, or accepting of, students who have studied abroad, but if your son starts junior high as a first-year this hopefully shouldn't be an issue.
Finally, Floyd, consider your son's personality and resilience. Will he be able to handle the stress of leaving his old school and friends behind, starting a new school, making new friends and assimilating back into Japanese culture? Many children are able to so with the support of their families and teachers, but many others struggle.
Also, remember that the Japanese school system can be quite rigid (depending on the school) and many, if not most, schools either don't encourage or flat-out discourage independence and free thought — the opposite of typical Western thinking. Some people mentioned the difficulties of Japanese university students trying to assimilate back into Japanese culture after even just a short time abroad — it's not easy.
Keeping the above in mind, it should be possible to find a good school for your son, and he may do very well here. There are always alternatives, too, such as private school, international school or home schooling (which can include attending school online). Most importantly, remember to keep the lines of communication open with your son as you go through the process.
Many thanks to the following people for their very helpful comments, which unfortunately couldn't be included due to space limitations: Jenny Adams, Tamas Gecse, Laura Gittelson, Hyewon, Ron McFarland, Amya Miller, Ryan Richardson, Morgan Shimizu, Tony Silva, Ashley Tieman and Mike Williams. Ashley Thompson writes survival tips and unique how-tos about living in Japan at www.survivingnjapan.com. Tokyo Public Law Office lawyers, who usually address readers' legal concerns on the second Tuesday of the month, will answer readers' queries next week. Please send all your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org