Home schooling finds foothold but not official favor

Mariko Komuro was of the firm belief that children should go to school even if they experienced problems -- at least until her 8-year-old son, Kazutoshi, began to feel sick and throw up in the morning on school days.

His homeroom teacher came for the boy and forcibly took him to school, only to make matters worse.

"I wanted to find other ways (to educate him) instead of forcing him to go to school," said Komuro, who turned to home education. "After reading books on home schooling, I thought maybe he could study at home."

After three years of home education, Komuro, who lives in Kanagawa Prefecture, believes her son is free of peer pressure and competition with others, and can use that energy for activities that interest him.

Home schooling is common with some Christian families, and about 1 million children are schooled at home in the United States alone. However, it is still a relatively unusual concept in Japan.

According to the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Homeschool Support Association of Japan, there are about 2,000 to 3,000 children home schooled in Japan and the number is gradually rising.

In Japan also, Christian families are the pioneers of home education. But some non-Christian parents here actively choose it as an alternative method of education that can better develop the individuality of their children, according to Toshiyuki Miyazaki, HOSA's general manager.

But he noted that for a large number of families in Japan, home schooling is something of a last resort, adopted for such reasons as prolonged absenteeism or the lack of a proper support system for disabled children and students who have fallen behind in their studies.

"Schools generally cannot deal with individual cases requiring special support," Miyazaki said. "Distrust toward schools leads to nonattendance, and then parents decide to try home schooling."

Set up in 2000 by home-schooling families and their supporters, HOSA aims to exchange information on home education and help provide a better environment for children schooled at home.

The organization is currently trying to get local governments and schools to recognize its credit system as a benchmark for assessing home-schoolers' activities.

Yuki Shigeta, a resident of Fuchu, western Tokyo, started home education five years ago when her son, Tasuku, who has a minor mental disability, reached school age.

Shigeta thought classes specifically for disabled children would not meet Tasuku's study needs, but she was unable to find an ordinary school that could provide special support for her son, who is now 10.

"I decided to take up home schooling until I could find a suitable school," said Shigeta, whose younger son, Hikaru, is also schooled at home.

Some of Tasuku's favorite activities are to play African drums, read illustrated books on wildlife, and write stories and draw accompanying pictures.

There are mainly two ways to educate children at home. One has them study along a timetable similar to that at school, while the other has them learn things through personal experience, focusing more on outdoor activities, music or arts and crafts rather than cramming knowledge into their heads.

Most parents use elements of both methods and seek a way that is best suited for their children.

One mother, who asked not to be named, said her daughter takes a correspondence course and goes to a so-called free school once a week. There, children in various age groups gather to study, read or play without being forced to do any specific activity.

Another mother said she first tried to teach her son at home using workbooks, but he hated them. She decided not to force him to do anything, and now he likes to draw watercolor paintings and listen to his mother read stories to him.

Allowing children to devote themselves to their interests without the constraints of timetables or homework is one of the most attractive points of home education, supporters say.

But there are also disadvantages.

For one thing, many children who are taught at home don't have a lot of opportunities to make friends their age.

In addition, many families are burdened by the expenses that come with preparing teaching materials, hiring tutors or taking children to outdoor activities.

But for most parents, the major source of concern may be that children who are taught at home do not receive school diplomas, which can be an obstacle should they seek to pursue higher education in Japan.

Yuji Shimohashi, an official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, said only educational institutions authorized under the School Education Law can issue diplomas.

"Home schooling is not considered proper education in Japan because we do not know whether the parents are teaching their children at certain educational levels," he said, adding that technically speaking, parents can be fined for violating their obligation to provide their children with education.

Shimohashi, however, admitted that school principals in fact issue diplomas at their own discretion for children with a poor attendance record if they deem the student has achieved the academic level needed for graduation.

HOSA gives credits to home-schoolers for their activities at home and their participation in events sponsored by the organization.

About 10 families have adopted the HOSA credit system and some have even reached an agreement with schools that such activities would be recognized as attendance.

Attendance is often a key factor in Japan in gaining admission to preferred schools, something that puts home-schoolers and those who do not go to school at a great disadvantage.

HOSA's Miyazaki stressed that parents of home-schooled children should not think that their kids are dropouts.

Children can start attending school at any grade if they wish to do so and are given the necessary support regarding their studies, he said.

Komuro said she hopes the government will give formal recognition to various education methods, including free schools and home education, and acknowledge that "regular" schools are not the only choice for children.

"It is important that children be allowed to decide for themselves how they want to study," she said.