Preschool in Japan


        For most Japanese children, preschool is a place where learning to interact with others and internalizing the rules of society is the major concern. Preschool is meant to be a transition from the unstructured, highly affectionate environment of the home, in which the child is the center of attention, to the highly structured, highly demanding group environment of the elementary school and beyond. In contrast, there is a growing number today of "education mothers" known as kyoiku mamas who begin educating their children well before preschool in hopes that they well get accepted to the most challenging and prestigious preschools and kindergartens. The contrast between these two general types of preschools is striking. One is extremely academically driven, while the other focuses on socialization, and places little to no importance on academic subjects.


        Teachers of preschool classes tackle discipline from a different approach than teachers from other countries: they give children authority. Japanese society views children as autonomous beings, capable of understanding right from wrong, of learning to have good behavior, and capable of keeping the peace between their friends by acting as negotiators and peace makers. Teachers feel that if children are given full responsibility for their actions, they will learn the value of good behavior for succeeding as part of a society, and that children will naturally act properly if they understand and believe in the rules rather than being told. When children are given authority, they learn the true consequences of their actions. Teachers often let children argue to the point of fighting without trying to stop them. They hope that the children will recognize the consequences of their negative behavior.

        Researchers asked parents of preschool children in Japan and the United States what they thought to be important characteristics of preschool teachers, 63% of Japanese mothers rated tolerance in their top three choices while only 15% of American parents did. It is clear that Japanese adults expect different care to be given to their children: in Japan children are meant to learn consequences on their own, when in America adults rely on scolding to teach children lessons. The main goal of most preschools in Japan is not to educate the children too heavily, but to emphasize the importance of being a positive part of group life, know as shudan seikatsu. When parents were asked about the importance of preschool, 91% of Japanese parents stated that becoming a part of a group was of importance, while only 62% of American parents said the same thing. On the other hand, 51% of American parents to only 2% of Japanese parents felt that academics were important in preschool, where 22% of American parents thought it was the time to learn reading and math skills, while only 1% of Japanese parents agreed.

        Japan is a very group oriented society, where interdependence is more important than individual independence. For example, a common toy found in Japanese preschools is wooden blocks. These are not small stacking blocks, but rather large, heavier blocks that are almost impossible for one child to use alone. This toy encourages children to play together and cooperate as a group.


        As mentioned before, children experience different types of preschools. Children from lower to middle class families generally attend more unstructured preschools where socialization is the major concern. The type of preschool that the majority of Japanese children attend has a more relaxed atmosphere. The goal of these is for the children to become social, and learn how to interact with others as part of a group. There are two similar types of preschools in Japan, one known as yochien, and the other known as hoikuen. Yochien was the first type developed. It was meant as a means for children of middle to upper-class families to be prepared for grade school. Hoikuen was developed in response to a need for care of children from families with working parents who needed care for their children for more hours of the day. The difference between the two types of schools is the amount of time they care for the children.

        Other children, usually from high class families attend preschools which have a very academically driven curriculum. In fact, many of these academic preschools require that prospective students take entrance exams. The children attending these schools are the ones with the kyoiku mamas. Only about one percent of Japanese children attend this highly academic rigorous preschool, but that number is on the rise.

Bacon, William F. and Veronica Ichikawa. 1998 "Maternal Expectations, Classroom Experiences, and Achievement among Kindergartners in the United States and Japan" Human Development. 31:378-383.

Lewis, Catherine C. 1984. "Cooperation and Control in Japanese Nursery Schools." Comparative Education Review. 28:69-84.

Peak, Lois. 1991. Learning to go to School in Japan: The Transition From Home to Preschool Life. Los Angeles: University of California Press

Tobin, Joseph, David Wu, and Dana Davidson. Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. 1989. New Haven: Yale University Press

More Resources (pdf annotated bibliography)

The purpose of this site is to inform web users on the status and lifestyles of children in Japan. This site was designed by Joanna Boyle, Rachel Riezman, Hannah Wolod, and Ellen Vollmers as part of a collaborative web project for the first year writing seminar Children & Society at Tulane University taught by Professor April Brayfield.