Jun 2, 2017

How to Survive Japanese Kindergarten (as a Failed-Perfectionist Parent)

    Two months have passed since my daughter started kindergarten and I've got to say the process is intimidating and stressful and scary, but needn't be. Much like in life, we will all make mistakes, but sometimes as a foreign parent, I feel woefully inadequate.

She looks perfect, right? Wrong! This is the day I forgot the hat.

    For instance, the other day we got an email from my daughter's kindergarten letting us know that there had been some sort of event that day for which the children were supposed to wear their sports uniforms. I had no idea of this, because I was counting on my husband to read all the information and tell me what was going on. Unfortunately my husband came home late, too tired to read anything. I did take all of the extra forms out of my daughter's backpack but didn't really look at them. Upon later inspection, I found the form in question and would have understood the dates well enough to know something was going on, but that didn't happen. 

Step 1: Read Everything. Even if you can't understand everything, read what you can and try to figure out the rest. Better to be too informed than not informed at all.  

Step 2: Prepare Early. You should start looking for schools in your area before your child turns 3 and decide in Fall of the year they turn 3. Yes, admission won't be until April, but a lot of the kindergartens fill up quickly, especially in big cities. We were very lucky to have six different kindergartens available in our small-ish city. Google yochien (  幼稚園  ) and/or hoikuen (   保育園  ) in your area to find more information. Yochien is more structured and more expensive, but official classes start from the age of 3. Hoikuen is more similar to daycare but is more affordable and is usually open to younger ages as well. Many yochien also offer after-school daycare for working parents and early-admission classes for 2-year-olds that guarantee the kid a spot in the upcoming enrollment, though they are expensive.

Julia at observation day, proud with her rapidly made apple picture.

Step 3: Tour the Schools First. Even if you're a public school kid like me, it means a lot to see not only the facilities but the behavior of the staff, and not just toward your kid but toward you as a foreign parent.
    I toured 2 schools our area -- the closest school to us was first, and the tour was a last minute thing arranged by a friend, but I spent the whole time we were there chasing my daughter while the woman in charge chewed the fat with my friend mostly, before showing me something explaining the fee structure which I was not allowed to take home and warning me that there were already plenty of people on their waiting list so they really wouldn't be likely to have room for us. 

    My husband arranged a walk through of the school he had gone to as a boy and not only were we permitted to take the forms home, but the staff made a point of making eye contact with me and trying to simplify a bit to help my understanding. They did not give me the impression that I was bothering them for being there or that having to deal with a foreign mom would be a deal breaker. Also, my kid loved it there and I could see that there were interracial kids in other classes, so I knew these people had dealt with non-native Japanese speakers before.

   So there was no debate where she would be enrolled. Daddy's old school was the winner, no question about it, but without the walk-through, I would have thought the closer school was a better option, hands down.

Step 4: Don't be too hard on yourself.  

    I'm writing this as much to myself as to anyone. Other parents make mistakes and put the kid out in the wrong uniform or with the wrong materials all the time. It happens. Otherwise the school wouldn't have spare clothes ready to go or a note writing system in place to share the information. Even if you're a natural perfectionist, you're not the only one making mistakes. Do what you've been doing your whole time living abroad. Adapt and relax. You're okay and you're probably not the only one to make whatever mistake you might be making today. 

Step 5: Don't Panic. Always good advice from Douglas Adams, but especially here. In the week leading up to Julia's first day of school, I flipped out over labeling. Maybe this seems normal to kids who went to summer camps like I have seen on TV, but that wasn't my life, so my brain freaked out (hiragana? Katakana? She has kanji, too... And where? And what pen? And what if the ink I choose bleeds into things and ruins the expensive uniform?)...so if you're like me, stop and relax. You're going to adapt. It's going to be fine. Also, I've come to find that there's usually some new change every couple of weeks (summer/winter wardrobe change-over, swim class, etc) so adaptation really is key to survival here.

Yes, even every chopstick must be labelled.

    Here are some things I learned about the labeling process:

1. Hiragana, family name first. Also any other info they give you (class name and number, if it's a big school)

2. Most of the uniform pieces have a little label space somewhere. Some of the additional bits might require an iron-on label, available at the 100 yen store. They also sell pens just for this at the 100 yen store or grocery store. The iron-on labels sometimes fall off in the wash and require a stitch or two to stay on.

If you're raising a family abroad, whatever your choices for schooling, good luck!



A working mom/writer/teacher, Jessica explores her surroundings in Miyagi-ken and Tohoku, enjoying the fun, quirky, and family friendly options the area has to offer.


  • edthethe

    on Jun 2

    this is really helpful! im dreading looking for school for my boy. he turns two this month and itll still be a while before i put him in school, but i know ill have to start that soon. i have no clue where to start. my husband doesn't really seem to care. im wondering when and how to go about doing walk throughs?

  • JTsuzuki

    on Jun 2

    @edthethe First, find out your options. I used Google, then checked the web pages for the schools to eliminate ones that were too far or didn't mesh with us. On the web pages, the schools should list a contact number and other info about class size and objectives and stuff. If you've got great Japanese skills, you can call and ask. If not, get your husband or a friend to help. Here, we had the option of scheduling a private walk-through after school hours (staff-hours permitting) or waiting for the big open-campus sort of day, when they're prepared for a bunch of kids and parents to show up and ask questions. We went with the second option for the school we chose, which might be why it went better than the other walk-through I did. You have a few months until any of those things happen I think, but it's good to get a head start on the researching portion of this. There's also a number of steps to the enrollment process, but that's a whole other blog-post worth of info. Start with research and walk-throughs.

  • Ooray2775

    on Jun 7

    I would not call it failed. any way who cares. Leaving the country soon, and make everybody happier.

  • mica

    on Jun 7

    I vividly remember those days where I get plenty of notes from the class teacher about the mistakes I have made in preparing the long list of things my kid had to bring to school... very nightmarish indeed. This list is perfect, thank you!

  • JTsuzuki

    on Jun 18

    @Ooray2775 If only it were that simple. It's not that I feel like a failure all the time, just that I am always finding new things to fail at in the culture. Unfortunately, we're not in the position to go anywhere anytime soon, but thanks for the advice anyway.

  • JTsuzuki

    on Jun 18

    @mica Thanks for the vote of confidence! It's always a challenge, isn't it? And then somehow, just when you figure it out, there's another challenge/failure! lol.

  • JTsuzuki

    on Jun 22

    @Ooray2775 I know your comment here was from several weeks ago and perhaps you meant it as a joke or something light and fun, but I feel the need to let you know that your suggestion regarding my "leaving the country soon" to "make everybody happier" could be taken really offensively. Honestly, I don't know anyone living in a foreign country with all the challenges and problems inherent in living outside of one's own culture who then needs to hear, "Just go home." If you don't know my situation, you have no place to suggest this. I'm sure you aren't aware that I could not afford this move financially, and that moving to my home country would literally put my daughter's life at risk (rampant racism, gun violence, expensive and crappy healthcare) and that I do not have a family home waiting for us to squat in should we return. I do not have this "go home" option. It hasn't been on the table for me in years. I don't know if everyone else on here has the option to move home at will, but I am pretty sure for most people trying to find their footing in Japan this suggestion could be harmful. Just so you know, sometimes comments like that can really be taken the wrong way.