Japan - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education



Early Childhood Education in Japan


In some sixteenth- and nineteenth-century essays, European authors remarked that Japanese society was paradise for young children. Young children were cherished, full of energy, and free. Although the authors neglected the tragedies of children living in poverty and a patriarchic family system, it was true that many children were cherished by members of extended families and looked after by people in their community. Traditional views of children supported the belief that the child was the gift of gods, born with good nature, and in the realm of gods until the age of 7. Adults needed to protect children from evil influences so that they could develop their own innate good nature. Mothers were responsible for raising their children to become respectable adults. A mother’s role was important in another sense, especially in the upper class; she was responsible for raising the first boy to excel as the successor in the patriarchic family system.


Transmission of Traditional Culture

Early childhood education has taken over the family’s role regarding cultural transmission. Japanese people had many traditional festivals following each season, from New Year’s Day to the end of the year. Children have prominent roles in many festivals originated in Shintoism, because they have been thought to be children of gods. In many festivals originating in agriculture, there have been special events for children. These ceremonies have been celebrated in both families and communities. Today, while most of these customs are lost in families, kindergartens and day-care centers celebrate these customs and apply them in educational practices. Some traditional play activities that are no longer popular in families are also practiced in preschool education. Thus, kindergartens and day-care centers have assumed the role of transmission of traditional culture (see also the Cultural Characteristics of Japanese Preschool Education).


Brief History of Japanese Early Childhood Education and Care

The first kindergarten was founded in the late nineteenth century for children of the upper-middle class. Teachers were women of upper-middle class who had been trained at the first teacher training school for women. This training school, Tokyo Women’s Teacher’s College, was founded in 1874, opened its kindergarten in 1876, and established the training course for kindergarten teachers in 1878. Its educational theory and practices were established by Sozo Kurahashi, a professor at the College.

The first day-care centers were also opened in the late nineteenth century in the countryside for children of farmers and workers. Several years later, the first day-care center in an urban area was created in Tokyo for poor children of working-class mothers. Teachers at this center were also graduates of the Tokyo Women’s Teacher’s College— highly educated women with progressive ideas. As a result, the development of day-care centers became a social movement to save poor families. Intellectuals, volunteers, educators, and child psychologists played an active role in improving the educational practices of these programs.

These historical streams show that, from the beginning, both kindergartens and day-care centers had professionals of high quality and people contributing to their creation and improvement. After complete destruction in World War II, the dual system was reconstructed in 1948 with establishment of its legal basis. Since then, the education guidelines for kindergarten have been revised four times, providing an historical record of the changes in national policy about early childhood education and care during the second half of the twentieth century (see Pedagogy in Japan).


Characteristics of Japanese Early Childhood Education and Care

Sozo Kurahashi’s theory has always been one core of Japanese preschool education. (see Pedagogy entry, below). Some characteristics of modern early childhood education and care can be traced directly to him, while others are the outcomes of social changes.


“Hoiku”—care and education for humanity. The expression “education and care (hoiku in Japanese)” is usually used in Japanese kindergartens and day-care centers. The meaning of “Hoiku” includes fostering personality, sensibility, emotion, motivation, human relationships, and health; that is, the basis of humanity rather than the teaching of knowledge and skills. This principle is presented in Kurahashi’s theory of “education by inducement.” The word “hoiku” is distinguished from education in school (“kyoiku”). While the word “kyoiku” is rarely used in day-care centers, it is used as “preschool education (yoji-kyoiku in Japanese)” in kindergartens, which legally belong to the school system. The use of kyoiku in kindergarten is controversial. In one aspect, kindergarten education has a uniqueness that distinguishes it from school education. On the other hand, continuity with preparation for elementary school is stressed. This contradiction contributes to the diversity of educational practices found among kindergartens.


Social change after world war II. The political and social contexts greatly changed after World War II. As a relatively monocultural society, this change was mainly caused by the innovation of social systems and economic growth. Social systems changed family and community. Both traditional extended families and neighborhood community disappeared. Today, mothers raise their children in a nuclear family without the help of grandmothers or their neighbors. Economic development has dramatically decreased child mortality (infant mortality rate is 3.2 and mortality rate under age 5 is 4 per 1000 births). The most drastic change is the decline of fertility.


Early Childhood Development Programming

Today, many Japanese children under the age of 3 are looked after by their mothers during the daytime. The enrollment rate of children under 3 years old in day-care centers is 21 percent (1999). Nine percent of 3-year-old children attend kindergartens and 30 percent of them attend day-care centers. At age 5, 83 percent of children participate in collective education (48% at kindergarten and 35% at day-care centers). Almost all 5-to 6-years-old children receive preschool education (60% at kindergartens and 39 % at day-care centers) before entering elementary schools. Elementary school is obligatory for children from 6 to 12 years old.

Early childhood education in Japan has two systems, kindergarten and day care. Kindergartens are operated under the School Education Law, and accept children from 3 to 6 years of age for four hours a day more than 39 weeks a year. The kindergarten education guidelines (National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens) issued by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) regulate the objectives and contents of kindergarten education, although private kindergartens are not required to follow them completely. Parents can choose either the two-year course (from 4 to 6 years old) or the three-year course (from 3 to 6 years old), and more and more parents choose the three-year course. The teacher/child ratio is at most 1:35. Kindergarten teachers are trained for more than two years after high school to get the kindergarten teaching license. Of the 13949 kindergartens countrywide, 60 percent are private and 40 percent are public (2005, MEXT).

The second system is the day-care center. In Japan, day-care centers are legally a social institution based on the Child Welfare Law and operated under the auspices of the Ministry of Welfare and Labor. Day-care centers accept children from three months (after maternity leave) to 6 years of age whose parents cannot take care of them during the daytime because of work or illness. Day-care centers are normally open from 7:30-8:30 in the morning until 6:00-7:00 in the evening. The Day Care Education and Care Guidelines provide the framework for the curriculum, although for children 3- to 6 years old the kindergarten guidelines are applied. In order to obtain a license professional day-care providers also must receive training for two years after high school. The adult/child ratio is 1:3 for children less than 12 months old, 1:6 for 1 and 2-year-old classes, 1:20 for the 3-year-old class, 1:30 for classes of 4- and 5-year-olds. There were 22,490 centers with 2,028,045 places in 2004 (Ministry of Health and Labor). Fifty six percent of all the day-care centers are administrated by local government and the remainder are private.

Although unification of these two systems for children aged 3 to 6 has been discussed several times since 1945, the two systems remain separate and each belongs to a different ministry. Recently, however, a third system, the “comprehensive educational facility,” has been created. This system combines the day-care center and the kindergarten and allows various styles of care and education in one institution.


The Five Content Domains of Early Education

Japanese preschool education focuses on five areas of study: health, language, expression, human relationships, and environment. The objectives of preschool education are not to attain goals but to encourage motivation or inclination. In the Guidelines, for example, we see emphasis on objectives such as “a child enjoys,” “a child is interested in,” “a child tries to ...,” “ a child feels” etc.


Education Through Play and Environment

Indirect instruction is one of the particularities of Japanese early childhood education. The Japanese believe that the best way to accomplish the objectives of preschool education is through play, where teachers support children so that they can develop by themselves. This is called, “education through the environment,” “education through play,” or “child-centered education” (see Curriculum and Play entries, below).

The theory of “education through the environment” has been accepted not only in collective education but also in family education. Literacy provides an example. Japanese language has three systems of characters: abundant Chinese ideograms (Kanjij, and phonemes such as 55 Hiraganas and 55 Katakanas. It looks complicated, but in fact, it is not so difficult to engage young children in literacy initiatives. In fact, young children are easily attracted by letters, because simple ideograms look like drawings and phonemes have one-to-one correspondence between letter and sound. Children are often motivated to ask adults how letters can be read and what they mean. If adults are responsive to their questions, children can acquire basic literacy by themselves. Parents who emphasize this indirect education motivate their children by making use of their surroundings.

Since the 1960s, with Japan’s growth as a worldwide economic power, a social trend valuing the advantages of intellectual learning has prevailed. Parents expect their children to obtain an advantageous position in society, and insist that kindergartens teach intellectual skills directly. It is not surprising that many kindergartens and day-care centers, especially private ones, respond to parental pressure by giving instruction in, for example, literacy, numeracy, physical training and exercise, and instrumental music. Even though “education through environment” is thought to be an ideal theory, parents prefer practical outcomes that prepare children directly for elementary school studies. Many other kindergartens and day-care centers are wavering between these two modes of education.


Early Development and the Family

Some studies show that many young mothers who are isolated in a nuclear family feel that their child-rearing is a burden. These women receive abundant information on child-rearing from TV, magazines, or books, but they often have no one with whom to discuss their concerns or ask for advice. Many young mothers confess that they want to be excellent mothers but feel guilty that they are not achieving this goal. Despite this concern, social support systems to replace traditional community have not been organized until recently, when local governments have attempted to address this lack of support with a new system of services for mothers. These services offer advice, opportunities to meet and talk with other young mothers, and provide facilities or interaction with other parent and children (see Family Involvement and Infants and Toddlers).


Children as Targets of Commercialism

Japanese economic growth has brought an increase in child-targeted industry. Family education has been impacted by this increase in commercialism. With one or two children in a family, a child has “six pockets” (two parents and four grandparents). Various child-focused industries promote the message that parents should spend money on their children. These industries encourage parents to take their children to various lessons (English language, computer, piano, swimming, dance, etc.), and claim to give the children intellectual training through the sale of educational materials, including computer games. These children are often too busy attending extra lessons to find time for playing with other children.


Risk Avoidance

In a society of low fertility, a child’s life is extremely precious for parents. Parents are nervous about their child’s safety, and careful to avoid risks in order to prevent accidents. Kindergarten and day-care teachers are also very careful to make sure that children have little risk of hurting themselves, for fear that parents will blame them for an accident. This tendency leads to overprotection of children both by parents and teachers. Because both teachers and parents are trying to avoid any possible accidents, children are deprived of adventurous activities, struggles with other children, and the use of dangerous tools. As a result, children are likely to miss the opportunity to acquire the skills needed to manage challenging situations.


Children and Outdoor Play

Children used to play in the neighborhood with other children of different ages, where they learned social rules and skills from older children. Today, there are few occasions for children to play outdoors with their peers. In urban areas little outdoor space is available where children can play safely without paying attention to the cars. Older children are often busy after school and are not able to take care of the younger ones while they play. As a result, children prefer to play with computer games instead of playing outdoors. When a crime against a childis committed somewhere in Japan and is then reported on TV, parents feel afraid to let their child play outdoors. These phenomena prevent children from acquiring necessary social skills for their development.


Social Pathology and Children

In every society, young children are most likely the victims of social pathology. Although the number of reported cases in Japan is less than that of many other developed countries, there is an increasing problem of mothers mistreating their children. Japanese mothers feel pressure to be good mothers. Their feelings of discrepancy between the ideal and reality, both about themselves and their children, cause anxiety and lead some mothers to neglect their children.

Another topic often discussed is the increase of children with behavioral disorders; for example, an increase in the number of schoolchildren who cannot stay calm in classrooms, children who become aggressive without good reason, or children without concern for others.

In contemporary Japanese society children are valued in the sense that parents spend more time and money on their children with greater interest and concern than parents did in 1950s (when they had many children and spent most of their time working to support their families). However, children today are treated more as possessions of parents, objects of marketing, and future participants in the worldwide competition called globalism. Children are encouraged to adapt themselves to the outside world, but are less sensitive either to their own or others’ inner world. Children are not isolated from today’s world of war and discrimination, and they are certainly influenced by a world in which power and violence dominate, even if they are not its immediate victims. We adults face the challenge of cooperating in an international context to provide children with societies in which they can lead happy and productive lives.

Further Readings: Japanese National Committee of OMEP (1992). Education and care of young children in Japan; Hoshi-Watanabe, M. (1999). Play or learn? Inside and outside of preschool in changing Japanese society. In G. Brougere and S. Rayna, eds., Culture, Childhood and Preschool Education. 85-100, UNESCO-Universite Paris Nord; Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2005). Annual Report on Basic Statistics of School Education. MEXT; Sekiguchi, H., and N. Teshima, eds. (2003). Hoiku Genri—Jissenteki Yoji-Kyoiku Ron (Principles of early childhood education). Practices of early childhood education. Tokyo; Edition Kenpaku-sha (in Japanese); Shwalb, D. W., and B. J. Shwalb, eds. (1996). Japanese childrearing. New York: Guilford Press.

Miwako Hoshi-Watanabe


Cultural Characteristics of Japanese Preschool Education

Japan is not an obviously multiracial or multicultural society, confronted with problems of maintaining the ethnicity of minority groups. Although it is not, in reality, a country of homogenous race, the preoccupation with the “homogeneity of Japanese culture” evident among Japanese is found in Japanese education. Japanese cultural characteristics penetrate various aspects of early child education. Also, the transmission of Japanese traditional culture is seen in educational programs.


The Traditional Concept of Children

There is an old saying in Japan that children under the age of 7 are still in God’s hands. This means that children under the age of 7 are not considered the objects of purity or impurity. Their souls should be placed in the territory of God and should be free from every constraint to resurrect their soul. Ethnological religions do not believe it is a good idea to place children under 7 years old in the control of Buddhism. The 7-year-olds celebration is considered to be a ceremony celebrating the first step in the process of transition into adulthood.


The Celebration of 7, 5, 3

There still remain many traditional events commemorating the children’s growth according to their age. The most popular one is known as the celebration of 7, 5, 3. This celebration involves a festival day for children ages seven, five, and three. As part of the celebration, girls at age seven and three and boys at age five visit a Shinto shrine with their family wearing traditional dress. The actual birthday celebration is carried out much as in Western countries. But in child care and educational institutions, birthdays are celebrated on a monthly basis. That is, children who share their birthday in the same month celebrate together. In Japan, group activities are common and considered a typical educational method.


The Japanese Group Orientation

In a study of how children are educated in Japanese kindergartens, using an ethnographic method, a difference was found between United States and Japanese ways of teaching. In identifying the “Japanese group-oriented tendency” the author described how Japanese children might belong to ten different groups simultaneously within the classroom. It is true that many groups exist in the kindergarten. Each group has its own name and /or color. For example, one particular child belongs to the kindergarten, the grade, the class, the group, the bus route, the locker, the uniform, the smock, the hut, the outdoor cap, and the shoes shelf. Each girl in the orange group, for instance, is called Miss Orange Group. By calling a child by his or her group name instead of his or her own name, a teacher intends to help the children become aware of the responsibility to the group (not as an individual). In part, Japanese children belong to many groups because one teacher has to take care of more than twenty to thirty children in her class without an assistant.


Group Behaviorand Discipline

The sense of group belongingness helps children behave well not only for themselves but also for their peers. It also provides children with close human relationships with their peers. To not make trouble for others comes ahead of all other things.

At the same time, group solidarity may cause some negative impacts on children who are isolated from the group. Although Japanese early childhood education has insisted on the importance of child’s individual development, it may be difficult to develop a child’s individuality within such group-oriented educational conditions.


“Omoiyari” or Altruism

“Omoiyari” may be called altruism in psychology. It is defined as behavior initiated based on the understanding of other people’s situations and feelings. Although Japanese children experience group-oriented education, this doesn’t appear to take away their sense of themselves as individuals. In Japan, young children are often encouraged to express their own thoughts. However, being nice, friendly, and sympathetic to others is the ultimate educational goal during the preschool days. Cooperating with peers promotes many dynamic activities; for example, building a big structure with large blocks and performing dramatic play helps promote an understanding of how to participate in group activities. Through this process, most teachers encourage children to make friends with their peers. Therefore “omoiyari” must be the keyword in Japanese education of early childhood.


Bokasi—A Gradation of Color

The word “bokasi” (which means gradation or obscure or vague or ambiguous) is also a key factor in understanding Japanese culture, thinking, language, human relationships, and view of nature and social structure. In artistic terms “bokasi” is an unlimited gradation of color. It is a beautiful technique used for traditional clothing. Japanese Empress Michiko frequently wears a “bokasi” designed dress. Psychologically, “bokasi” is thought to be an expression of an ambiguity. One expresses ambiguity in order to avoid showing independence from the group. Thus one identifies oneself as a member of the group and makes one’s individual position congruent with that of the group.


Special Programs

Another important characteristic of Japanese early childhood care and education involves special programs, which are introduced in day-care centers and kindergartens. Those special programs are defined to be activities carried out on a certain day for a certain educational purpose. According to the purpose of education, each special program is planned appropriately for children. There is an entrance ceremony, the parent meeting, a home visit, children’s day, mother’s day and father’s day (parent day), festival time, memorial day, good teeth day, July 7 festival (Tanabata), pool open day, summer festival, lodging with peers away from families, moon viewing, elder people’s day, sports day, excursions, sweet potato digging, autumn festival, Christmas, New Year days, “Setsubun” bean scatter (to drive out bad luck), girl’s festival and the graduation ceremony. It is not necessary to carry out all these programs in one institution, but it is often heard that teachers are forced to host these events even in daily programs, which results in a very busy schedule and insufficient time allocation for daily care.

Why do we have so many special events? Most are traditional social events that have been carried out in the community. With the economic growth that occurred in the 1970s many community-initiated traditional events or festivals were replaced by commercialism. Communities and families no longer play a major role in such annual events. Consequently, preschool teachers are encouraged to provide opportunities for children to experience those annual events. This has led to concern regarding allocating enough time for children’s free play in daily activities.


Cultural Differences

Japan is not strictly a homogeneous society. There are aboriginal people in the northern part of Japan. In the western part of the country there has been mixing and interacting with people from China, Korea, and South East Asia for centuries. Recently, many students have expressed an interest in multicultural education. More children from abroad are involved in Japanese preschools. Japanese teachers tend to treat foreign children equally; however, foreign children are encouraged to accept Japanese culture and life just like their Japanese counterparts. Behaving similarly with others might be stressful for some foreign children. Japanese educators sometimes lose sight of the fact that foreign students have their own individuality and their own culture, in favor of cooperation and harmonization with Japanese culture. But multicultural education in preschool settings is a growing concern among those who study early childhood education in Japan.

Further Readings: Hendry, J. (1986). Kindergartens and the transitions from home to school education. Comparative Education 22(1), 53-58; Hisatomi, Y. (2004). A study on communication between teacher and foreign children in Japan. Resarch on Early Childhood Care and Education Japan 42(1) (in Japanese); Hoasi, A. (2005). Study on Omoiyari. Presentation at the 58th Conference of Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education (in Japanese); Iwata, K., T. Ayabe, and N. Miyata (1985). Original Image of Children’s Culture, Tokyo; Nihon Housou Shuppan Kyoukai Press (in Japanese); Kanda, E. (2004). Event. Dictionary on Child Care and Education. Tyoto; Minerva Shobo Press; Kanda, T. (2003). The present situation on multi-cultural education in Japan. Presentation at the 56th Conference of Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education (in Japanese); Mori, M. (1999). Theory and practice on multi-cultural education in Japan. Presentation at the 52nd Conference of Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education (in Japanese); Nakayama, O. (1982). Japanese culture of Bokasi, Tokyo; Arufah Shuppan Press; Nakura, K., and J. Nakazawa (2002). International Exchange Committee: Special Symposium at the 55th conference of Japan Society of Research on Early Childhood Care and Education (in Japanese); Sato, Y., S. Shinzawa, C. Teshi, E. Nakamura, and N. Hatanaka (1994). Interactive support between preschool and families of foreign children. Research on Early Childhood Care and Education Japan (32) (in Japanese); Yuhki, M. (1998). First group-life in Japan—ethnographic studies of a kindergarten Tokyo; Yuhsindo Press (in Japanese).

Junko Enami


Family Involvement in Japan


Japanese education has some characteristics that differentiate it from other countries in terms of family involvement. School/kindergarten events are seen as family life events that include whole extended families, many school/kindergarten supplies are individual personal possessions, and the educational curriculum encompasses social manners. Why this is so can be looked at from a historical perspective.

During the Edo period, when Japan was isolated from other countries for over 200 years, each social class in Japan had its own separate educational system. The Samurai class had their own clan schools for their sons to be taught Confucianism, the Chinese philosophy of politics and morality, and martial arts, reading, writing, and arithmetic. For the lower classes of farmers, merchants and craftsmen, there were small schools called “terakoya,” literally meaning small temple room, where Buddhist monks taught small numbers of students the specialized skills of basic literacy and the math skills they would need to function successfully in their designated profession.

However in 1868, the Meiji Restoration took over the Edo Shogunate, and the new government abandoned the old popular educational system, promulgating a new system adopting Western educational approaches. Although over the years this educational system has been reformed, its top-down nature and strong centralization under government control have not been altered.

The first kindergarten in Japan was established for aristocrats in 1876. This government-led education system continued after World War II and was successful in achieving high enrollment and literacy rates for the Japanese. Using the same curriculum all throughout Japan, this system created a meritocracy, whereby social success was determined by academic achievement based on one’s academic resume, without relation to the social class in which one was born. With educational success having become the key to social success, schools and teachers have gained relatively high social positions and garnered widespread respect. Therefore, school ceremonies are almost family events in which every member should participate. Community members attend other school events like sports days or performances, thus becoming the glue that holds a community together as communities’ traditional festivals diminish in cities.

The morality of Confucianism has had a great influence on the Japanese mentality. The principle that government, not citizens, should have the responsibility for education leads to the concept that morality and social manners also belong to school education. As a result, schools have internalized the idea that it is their role to teach social manners. One example of this is: at elementary and junior high schools, lunch time and overseeing the classroom cleanup by the students are also matters for teachers to control. During lunch, the teacher encourages the children to try a variety of foods, encouraging them to not take what they cannot eat, and to use good table manners. She/he is actively monitoring and teaching during lunchtime. In early childhood education its tendency is the same as that found in school.


Early Childhood Education

Two separate streams make up the system of preschool education in Japan (see earlier). One component is the day-scare center, which is under the control of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Day-care centers give education and care to babies and children from 0 to 6 years old whose parents are both working; as a result they are open more than eight hours a day.

The second stream is for children who are cared for by someone (almost always stay-at-home mothers) at home and who attend kindergartens from 3 to 6 years old. These kindergartens are under the regulation of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Although there have been two separate systems, the two functions of care and education are merging together and the education of all 3- to 6-year-olds at day-care centers falls under the same guidelines that kindergartens have followed and is overseen by the Ministry of Education.


Family Involvement

Two aspects regarding family involvement in early childhood education will be discussed. The first will explain how Japanese kindergartens and day-care centers traditionally involve parents. The second will explore the new concept developing in day-care centers and kindergartens regarding family services for all child-rearing families, as well as in the communities and nonprofit organizations.


Parental involvement in kindergarten and day care. Shortly before a child begins kindergarten, parents are requested to prepare all the supplies that he/she will need for kindergarten life. Parents either purchase or make between ten and twenty items such as uniforms, bags, and lunch bags. For day-care centers, the list is even longer, expanding to include sheets for sleeping on during nap time, pajamas, diapers, futon covers, etc. Traditionally, the kindergarten recommended that the mother make these items by hand as an expression of her love of her child. Recently, many kindergartens have lessened the emphasis on homemade items. A further expectation of parents is that they write their child’s name on all the new items. This is quite a time-consuming task as kindergarten supplies are almost always personal possessions.

A typical supply list would include a box of crayons, a clay case, scissors, a drawing notebook, and colored pencils. Marking each item goes beyond simply writing the child’s name on the top of a crayon box. Individual items such as each of the 12 crayons, the top of the crayon box and the bottom of the crayon box would have the child’s name written on it. Although this labeling is time consuming, it is through this patient work that parents and children mutually cultivate their expectation of attending kindergarten. This feeling is passed down over generations in a Japanese family.


Entrance and graduation ceremony and other events. Entrance and graduation ceremonies have special meaning for families with kindergarten children. Parents and children, and sometimes grandparents, come in their proper and rather formal clothes, usually a dark color and navy suits or dresses. Grandparents sometimes join in this event by presenting new clothes for the entrance ceremony. Even though these ceremonies are held on weekday mornings, most fathers would not consider missing such an important event. Events like sports day, drama performance day, art exhibitions and musical concerts at kindergartens and day-care centers are also important to family life. These are held as big events lasting the full day and are open to all families in the community. Often grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and community members attend, as this is a focal point in the life of the neighborhood as well and an opportunity to meet each other.


Activities for parents. During the two or three years of kindergarten, parents are kept informed of their child’s life through parent/ teacher class meetings, open observation days, and one-on-one parent/teacher interviews. Parents do not usually participate in daily kindergarten activities (such as reading stories or helping put together art work). However, when teachers request volunteers to accompany field trips, parents are often willing to sign up and assist. Kindergartens also serve as a social outlet for parents. For example, many kindergartens have parents’ circles for cooking, chorus, and arts. Library groups and puppet theater classes may perform dramas and storytelling as part of the kindergarten activities.



Life skills are also taught in day-care centers and kindergartens. Life skills are seen as important educational objectives and they stand equal with other academic objectives in early childhood education. Day-care centers and kindergartens both emphasize greetings, washing hands, mealtime manners, brushing teeth after lunch, and other social manners. Teachers feel responsible for fostering the child’s development of a proper daily routine, and actively promote and expect that the family cooperates and supports the development of this discipline. In an effort to assist parents during summer break, many kindergartens send newsletters recommending appropriate behavior during the long summer holiday. Examples include not drinking too many cold drinks in the hot summer, being careful to avoid traffic accidents, going to bed early and getting up early, and not watching too much TV.


Parent-Teacher Communication

There are special message notebooks that encompass the majority of communication between teachers and parents and are exchanged back and forth between them. At day-care centers these are particularly important and are written in daily, with teachers communicating detailed information such as the frequency, timing and condition of bowel movements, appetite and consumption at mealtime, and observations at nap and play. Reciprocally, parents are required to write the child’s physical condition, body temperature, food consumption, bedtime and wake-up time, etc. Kindergartens also use notebooks to communicate how a child is relating to his peers, how he is participating in class activities or other relevant details from his time there. It is taken for granted that parents check the class newsletter and also the kindergarten newsletters, because they contain important notices, such as changes in pick-up timings, lists of items to be brought for arts and craft activities in the following week or for upcoming field trips.


Involving Fathers

Although child-rearing traditionally has been the mother’s role, day-care centers and kindergartens have recently invited fathers to play with the children and established meetings just for fathers to share their child-rearing experiences in comfortable situations.


New Family Services and Early Childhood Education

In the past, new parents looked to their parents, extended family members, and neighbors as child-rearing mentors, who would provide examples of childrearing. Given the declining birthrate and aging society, young Japanese parents have little experience with child care, and nuclear families have no one in the neighborhood to advise them. Therefore, child-rearing neurosis and child abuse have become a greater concern in the past few years. To counter this, day-care centers and kindergartens are now offering their child-care resources to families in their communities, regardless of whether their child attends the kindergarten or not. Examples of this support are playgroups for parents with babies or toddlers, opening up the playgrounds or indoor play spaces for play, teachers counseling on child-rearing concerns, etc. The centers offer a gathering place for parents to drop in and meet other parents in the neighborhood, helping to develop friendships and alleviate feelings of isolation.

There is also a simultaneous push to establish family support services within the broader community. Local governments and nonprofit organizations also are offering drop-in activities, chat lounges, and space for counseling in their facilities. Although they are not early childhood education institutions per se, these settings function to help young parents by providing places to gather and play, with facilitators who are public health nurses or child-care workers. They also maintain groups for young parents to get together, setting up their own organizations or study groups to discuss child-rearing or their own problems. Sometimes these places provide supervision or babysitting services for children in order to give parents a short respite. The goal of these services is to prevent parents and children from feeling isolated, to help them make friends, and to alleviate some of the pressures and troubles of child-rearing.

With family support services for parents in the early childhood years the government is taking steps to counter the declining birth rate, which reached an alarmingly low number of 1.29 in 2005. Having children is felt to be an exceedingly heavy burden on mothers. Family support in Japan should have a dual role of not only offering day-care centers for children of parents rearing children, but also of preventing child abuse and poor environments for mothers and children. The concept of prevention is new to early childhood education in Japan and it will be more important in the future in family services.

Further Readings: Benjamin, G. R. (1997). Japanese lessons: A year in a Japanese school through the eyes of an American anthropologist and her children. New York: New York University Press; Tobin, J. J., D. Y. H. Wu, and D. J. Davidson (1989). Preschool in three cultures, Japan China and the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kazuko Matsumura


Pedagogy in Japan

The current National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens (the guidelines for Japanese preschool education, revised in 2000) describes their basic principle as education through use of the environment, taking account of traits of early childhood. This principle of “education through environment” has three axes of practices: the importance of all phases of daily kindergarten life appropriate for early childhood, comprehensive guidance through play, and individual guidance based on understanding of each child. The approach can be summarized as “child-centered education.” The pedagogy of the Japanese child-centered preschool education has its origin at the dawn of kindergarten.


The Establishment of Kindergartens and the Introduction of Froebel’s “Gabe" Method

In the late nineteenth century, after Japan had been reformed from feudalism to a modern regime, the Meiji government introduced western policies and systems, including educational systems. In 1886, the government promulgated the “Order of School Education,” by which modern school education systems were started.

Masanao Nakamura (1832-1891), who was famous for his translation of “Self Help” of the British pedagogue Smiles, insisted that individual independence was indispensable for the modernization of Japan. He devoted himself to the establishment of educational systems for women and for young children. In 1876, when he was the president of the Tokyo Women’s Teachers College, he created an attached kindergarten, the first kindergarten in Japan. He introduced Friedrich Froebel’s theory to this kindergarten, asserting that under adequate conditions of collective education, young children should be assured their full development through play activities and interaction with peers. Ms. Clara Matsuno, who had graduated from the Froebelian teacher training school in Germany, had become the first head teacher of this kindergarten. Based on Froebelian ideas and methods, she introduced Froebel’s “Gabe” method. Within several years this “Gabe” method was spread into many kindergartens that had been opened in all parts of Japan at that time. However, this application of the “Gabe” method lost sight of Froebel’s original philosophy and became too formalistic.


The Beginning of Child-Oriented Education

In 1899, the “Act of Content and Facilities of Kindergarten Education Guidelines,” the first guideline for kindergarten education was enacted by the Ministry of Education. The guideline identified four contents of education: play, song, speech, and handicrafts. Although “Gabe” includes just a part of the category of “handicrafts” in the guideline, the fact was that in many kindergartens most handcraft activities were collective handworks with “Gabe” objects under teachers’ instruction. By the early twentieth century, however, the “Gabe” method was being criticized as inflexible and too teacher oriented. Instead, child-centered theories were proposed. For example, Motokichi Higashi (1872-1958), an assessor at the Kindergarten attached to Tokyo Women’s Teachers College, emphasized the importance of free play. He systematized play-centered educational programs and published The Method of Kindergarten Education (1904). This was the first systematic theory of early childhood education by a Japanese author.

At the same time, the reform of teaching programs was proposed by two educators, Goroku Nakamura, the principle of the Kindergarten, and Minoru Wada, a teacher at Tokyo Women’s Teachers College. They insisted on a change from teacher-oriented programs to child-oriented or play-centered programs. However, this proposal was too progressive to be accepted widely at that time.


Sozo Kurahashi and the Progress of Child-Oriented Education

Early in the twentieth century, along with the tide of Taisho democracy, child- oriented approaches inspired by the American new educational movement of John Dewey, Kilpatrick, and others had a strong impact on kindergarten education. Fostering spontaneity, creativity, and individuality of children was valued.

The educator who created a child-oriented theory that was suitable for Japanese sociocultural conditions and traditional values was Sozo Kurahashi (1882-1955). He had been interested in early childhood education since his high school days. After majoring in child psychology at a university, he taught at Tokyo Women’s Teachers College. At its kindergarten, he played with children, observed them, and discussed them with teachers. In 1917, when he became the head of the kindergarten, he put all the “Gabe” materials together in a basket so that children could play with them freely and voluntarily. He practiced his child-centered education based on Froebel’s theory, instead of the formal education of “Gabe” method. To develop his own theory, he tried to integrate western theories with his practices at his kindergarten and the traditional Japanese view of education and children. He had studied the ideas of John Amos Comenius, John-Jacques Rousseau, and Johann Pestalozzi. Later, when he visited European countries and the United States, he studied Montessori, the theory of the Progressive Education, and especially Froebel. He knew that in the Japanese traditional view of education parents would have just observed their children and provided them with good environment, because the child was born good and had potentiality to grow up by himself. He integrated all these into his theory, not only practicing it in his kindergarten but also described it in his three books The Preschool Education (1932), The Essence of Kindergarten (Youchien Shintei, 1934, revised in 1953) and The Mind of Bringing up Children (Sodate no Kokoro, 1936). Almost all the basic ideas of the present national curriculum of kindergartens and day-care centers have already been shown in these works. His theory has been the pillar in the history of Japanese preschool education and still has a great effect on present education both theoretically and practically.

Promulgation of “the Kindergarten Act” in 1926 was followed by the increase in the number of kindergartens and improvement of their education. The model of the improvement was the education of the kindergarten attached to Tokyo Women’s Teachers College.

Kurahashi described his theory most systematically and comprehensively in The Preschool Education. Three purposes and eight methods of preschool education were introduced. The purposes are as follows:

1. Kindergarten as a place of fundamental education. Preschool education is fundamental to all education, because it cultivates the humanity and the potentiality of self-development that are the basis of further development.

2. Fostering physical strength and health. To foster children’s physical strength and health, teachers should give children opportunities to enjoy their moving bodies. Outdoor play is an example. These experiences would motivate them to maintain their health by themselves.

3. Fostering a good nature. “Good nature” in Japanese means gentleness, sympathy, and intimate feelings toward others, and is highly valued in Japanese society as a fundamental trait of humanity. It should be cultivated with deliberate and delicate care by adults in early childhood.

The eight methods of preschool education are as follows:

1. Daily-life oriented education. To encourage the development of children’s minds and bodies, educational programs should be based on consideration of all aspects of their own daily lives. This means that it is important to respect their spontaneity, not to interfere in their natural stream of life, and to assure them that they be able to lead their lives voluntarily.

2. Respect for play. It is through play that children show the essence of their nature. Play gives children the power of future development, and so must have an essential role in development of young children.

3. Encouraging social relationships. Preschool education cannot consist only of the one-on-one teacher-child relationship. It is also important that children have opportunities to encounter and relate with one another in order to establish social relationships.

4. Preparing a good environment. A desirable kindergarten environment is one in which children feel free, behave voluntarily, get rich stimulation from their surroundings, and thus accomplish self-fulfillment in their everyday lives. Kurahashi’s idea of the emphasis on environment was maintained later in the national guidelines as the concept of “education through environment.”

5. Grasping opportunities for intervention. To guide children in respecting their own stream of life, it is important for teachers to seek appropriate chances to intervene and support them.

6. Supporting the motivation for achievement and self-satisfaction. A teacher expresses his/her appreciation for the children when they devote themselves to their activities, and supports them until they have deep satisfaction. This brings them a sense of self-fulfillment and further motivation to achieve.

7. Inducement in life. The concept of “inducement” in Japanese is that a good environment guides children in a desirable direction for educational purposes. The teacher has a role of “inducing” children, because he/she is one of the elements of the environment. The method of inducing is, above all, to be vivid and active and to invite children to share in that life. Children are inspired by example, and lead their own lives voluntarily and actively.

8. Interacting with children with a warm heart (“Kokoro-mochi"). Kokoro-mochi, a Kurahashi term, means having a sympathy or resonance for others’ feelings. When children lead full lives, they should have a warm heart and kokoro-mochi. Teachers should be sensitive to each child’s kokoro-mochi, express appreciation for those feelings, and recognize those feelings as positive attribute, rather than simply to encourage the child’s intellectual interests. This also enhances respect for individuality.

In The Essence of Kindergarten, Kurahashi also explained “self-fulfillment,” one of his central concepts. Children have the potentiality of self-fulfillment innately and develop it in free and spontaneous play activities. Teachers can support them by preparing adequate “arrangements” that guarantee children feel free. His theory was widely accepted by kindergarten teachers and researchers and has become the basic principle of early childhood education.


Pedagogy since World War ll

Following complete destruction during World War II, the new educational system was mandated in 1948. Kindergartens were included in the educational system operated under the Law of School Education. New guidelines of care and education (both for kindergartens and day-care centers) were enacted in that year. Kurahashi’s ideas were retained as the theoretical basis of these guidelines.

Since then, the guidelines have walked along a winding path to the current version. The first revision of guidelines (National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens) in 1956 established six domains of educational content; health, social competence, nature, language, music and rhythm, and drawing. In 1966 the Ministry of Welfare created the guidelines for day-care centers, in which the kindergarten guidelines were applied for children older than 3 years old.

Emphasis on continuity with elementary school education in these guidelines reinforced the inclination toward direct instruction that grew along with Japan’s economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Kindergartens appeared that were explicit in giving young children an intellectual education and preparation for success in school. These trends raised various controversies. In 1989, a third revision of the guidelines validated child-centered education as the essence of preschool education. Once again, “education through environment” was declared, as well as Kurahashi’s three purposes; education in the stream of daily life under suitable conditions for early childhood, comprehensive education through play, and guidance appropriate to each child’s traits. The educational contents were revised to five domains; health, human relations, environment, language, and expression.

The pedagogy of preschool education since World War II has often been challenged by those who proclaim the importance of the early instruction of intellectual abilities such as numeracy and science. They look at children as future technocrats or eminent experts who will contribute to our economic growth. However, Kurahashi’s successors all over Japan have cherished his theory because they believe that the essence of preschool education is to foster humanity. For example, Makoto Tsumori, who focuses his research and practices on children’s inner development, expressed this thought in his work Horizons of Early Childhood Professionals (1997): “Taking care and educating children [For Tsumori, care and education are a set and equally important.] in preschool is the work of supporting the development of human beings. When children through their challenges discover themselves in interaction with teachers, they can make their way forward with self-confidence. The major concern of teachers should be whether children behave according to their own will: that is, whether they bring up themselves.”

Further Readings: Holloway, S. (2000). Contested childhood: Diversity and change in Japanese preschools. New York: Routledge; Ishigaki, E. H. (1991). The historical stream of early childhood pedagogic concepts in Japan. Early Child Development and Care 75, 121—59; Ishigaki, E. H. (1992). The preparation of early childhood teachers in Japan (Part 1): What is the goal of early childhood care and education in Japan? Early Child Development and Care 78, 111-38; Japanese National Committee of OMEP (1992). Education and care of young children in Japan. Tokyo: Japan Committee of OMEP, Kurahashi, S. (1965) Kurahashi Sozo Zenshu (Complete works of Kurahashi Sozo) Tokyo: Froebel Kan (in Japanese); Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: (MEXT) (1998). National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens. Available online at http://www.mext.go.jp/english/news/2001/04/010401.htm; Peak, L. (1991). Learning to go to school in Japan: The transition from home to preschool life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; Tsumori, M. (1997). Hoiku-sha no Chihei (Horizons of early childhood professionals). Kyoto: Minerva Shobou (in Japanese); Tsumori, M. (1998). Education and care for children with special needs. International Journal ofEarly Childhood, 30(1), 79-82.

Nobuko Kamigaichi


Curriculum in Japanese Early Childhood Education

An Experience-Based Curriculum

In Japanese kindergartens and day-care centers, the central part of the curriculum is children’s experiences in play. Play is highly valued, because it is an autonomous activity of children. The Japanese concept of curriculum is not one that has children acquire knowledge and skills by systematic teaching programs. Rather, it is a type of curriculum in which a teacher picks up and focuses on an aspect of a child’s experience, gives suggestions about it, and accumulates these occasions in various activities within children’s play. We call it experience-based curriculum. For example, if a child is interested in insects and hunts them during the playtime, a teacher, respecting the child’s interest, could plan programs about insects. The teacher could ask the child to draw a picture of an insect, and also to prepare picture books such as the life of insects or how to keep insects. It is likely that the child would be fascinated with such activities. These experiences nurture in him or her a scientific mind, expression of feelings, and/or respect for the life of other creatures. We consider this concept of curriculum desirable for early childhood education for it builds the basis for development over the lifespan.

Early childhood is the period of life where children enrich their sensibilities, acquire positive attitudes toward various matters, and become aware of concepts of objects and events, through concrete and immediate experiences. Education in kindergartens and day-care centers sets out to fulfill these aspects of development, and play is a process central to accomplishing this goal. However, play does not mean “laissez-faire.” The subjects of play are the children themselves. Teachers, while respecting children’s autonomy and their own will, should think about what the necessary experiences are for each individual at every moment, reflect on what activities and environmental conditions can provide them optimal circumstances, and then plan and construct the actual (concrete) environment.

An experience-based curriculum is more difficult for teachers than a goal- oriented curriculum in which achievement goals are set, planned to be attained, and put into practice. In Japan, we believe that it is better that teachers, while respecting children’s autonomy, carefully insert desirable factors into the play environment, and allow children to have additional useful experiences with them. However, this demands more competence of planning and a deeper understanding in children than is required in goal-oriented instruction. For these reasons, it is not always successful in practice.


Policy Background

The concept of this type of curriculum has a basis in law. Japanese kindergarten is one of the school institutions that operates under the Law of School Education. Article 77 of that law states that “the kindergarten aims to give education and care to young children by providing a suitable environment and to encourage their development of minds and bodies.” More concrete criteria for curriculum are found in Article 76 of Rules of the Law of School Education, called the National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens. The curriculum for children from 3 to 6 years of age in kindergartens as well as day-care centers is based on these guidelines. Here the discussion will be limited to the application of the guidelines to kindergarten education.


National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens

First, the guidelines regulate the time conditions of kindergartens. In principle, kindergartens should be open no more than thirty-nine weeks a year and four hours per day. In fact, due to recent flexibility in the application of this regulation, more and more kindergartens accept children for a longer time.

As for education, the guidelines indicate that kindergartens should think about the children’s future learning, so that the aims of education will be accomplished by all aspects of children’s lived experience in kindergarten, from entrance to departure and at every moment in the daily life of the child. In keeping the whole kindergarten life appropriate to developmental stages of early childhood, teachers foster the development of children mainly through play. In other words, the aims of education should not be pursued primarily by guiding children with a teacher’s initiative. The principles of education contained in the Guidelines, curricular aims and contents, and the multiplicity of developmental aims with each activity are discussed in more detail below.


Principles of Education

There are the three principles of kindergarten education: that the lived experience be suitable for early childhood, that a comprehensive education be provided through play, and that education be carried out in accordance with the specific developmental traits of the individual child.

Young children can develop and widen their world when feeling that they are affirmed and loved by adults. In constructive kindergarten life, built on the feeling of trust with teachers, children have interest voluntarily in various things and engage themselves in play, in which they have positive relations to others and events. Teachers have to provide curriculum experiences that assure these aspects of development.

In each kindergarten curriculum is developed according to age level. Although one curriculum is applied to all children of the same age level, individual difference is also taken into consideration. Teachers have to prepare different paths and means according to the developmental stages of each child.


Aims and Contents

What should be nurtured in play, the central process in Japanese early childhood education? The National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens formulate “contents” and “aims of education.” “Contents” describe necessary practices to accomplish the aims. “Aims” do not mean goals to be achieved, but rather are orientations of development; that is, sentiments, attitudes, or motivations that are to be fostered in the course of development. There are five areas of developmental orientation: health, human relationships, expression, environment, and language. The concepts in these areas should not be confounded with those of subjects in school learning. For example, “health” does not simply mean physical activities, and the curriculum in health should not only be related only to physical activities. The orientations of these five areas are as follows:

• Health—to foster a healthy body and mind; to encourage keeping healthy and safe through self-care.

• Human relationships—to foster cooperative relationships and empathy for others; to foster independence and autonomy.

• Expression—to foster the ability to express one’s feelings and opinions; to enrich sensibilities and creativity.

• Environment—to foster explorative interest in surrounding objects and events, and to apply these experiences in life.

• Language—to foster and to express verbally one’s feelings and thoughts with one’s own words; to listen to others’ speech; to nurture sensitivity to language and to verbal expressions.


Comprehensiveness of Aims and Orientations

The curriculum should be developed so that children have comprehensive experiences of these five aims in one activity. Teachers expect that the accumulation of various experiences within each activity, which interrelate these five orientations in a comprehensive way, will be fruitful for each child’s development. An example follows:

Some 5-year-old children are going to organize a relay race. They make a course by tracing it with line-marker on the ground. In planning the race, the children find that they need more runners. The children invite their friends to join them. Then they make two teams and begin the race.

This sequence of behavior is totally self-governing, and contains many elements. A relay race is a physical activity; it contains the “content” of “play voluntarily in outdoors” in the “health” area. Making a course together and appealing to friends demonstrates a realization of the “content” of “think by oneself, behave in one’s own initiative” and “cooperate with friends, have sympathy toward others” in the area of “human relationships.” And it also represents “have a pleasure of self-expression” in the area of “language.” In this process, teachers should observe children attentively, interpret comprehensively what the children are experiencing, and grasp how the experiences are accumulated. In this example, if a teacher thinks that this is an opportunity to regulate the number of runners, he/she may give the children pieces of cloth (or badges) with numbers so that they find an equal number more easily by themselves. Thus, after interpreting the children’s experience in play and extracting important elements from it, teachers add further necessary elements to enrich or modify their play situation. This is the process of making and practicing curriculum in a kindergarten. Evaluation of curriculum examines what aims were realized in their activities and what aims could not be activated. Further planning will be carried out on the basis of the evaluation.


Educational Practices

Teachers make two sets of curricular programs. The first of these is shortterm, including daily and weekly plans and activities. The second is the long-term program, containing monthly, semester, and annual plans and activities. Both programs have the same sequence: (1) understanding the children’s reality by observation, (2) setting aims for the education, (3) planning of the supporting environment, (4) modifying the aims or reconstituting the environment by observation and evaluation. What is most important for teachers is to understand children both in the long term and in the short term. It is not easy for a novice to make a short-term program in the perspective of a long-term program. Without it, however, it is difficult to really understand children’s actual states.

What is the best kindergarten life for development of a young child? It may be one in which, under human conditions that affirm all his or her existence, time, space, and other physical conditions allow the child to do try-and-error as he or she wishes. The competence acquired through play is a kind of basic living force. It is implicit, and its effect is hard to see immediately. It becomes explicit only in later life. However, due to recent social trends demanding immediate visible effects of education (i.e., a child becomes capable of something that can be demonstrated), an increased number of kindergartens adopt a goal-oriented curriculum. A variety of possible interpretations of the National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens allows for diversity of curriculum in kindergartens. We have to reexamine what sorts of curriculum are most appropriate and needed for early childhood education, given that this is the period for construction of the basis of personality.

Further Readings: Kawabe, T. (2005). Asobi o Chushinnishita Hoiku (Education and Care through Play). Tokyo: Hobun-Shorin. (in Japanese); Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: (MEXT) (1999). Explanations of The National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens. Tokyo; Froebel-kan; Toda, M. (2004). Hoiku o dezain suru (Designing Education and Care). Tokyo; Froebel-kan (in Japanese).

Takako Kawabe


Play in Japanese Early Childhood Education

Definition of Play in Early Childhood

Playing is one of the most important activities in early childhood. Playing is voluntary and is in itself an objective, rather than just being a method of adjusting to reality. Playing has a lot of freedom, with high changeability. Because of this, playing is perceived as being fun and comfortable, and children will regard playing as something that would give them pleasurable feelings. Children can develop many functions through playing, which enables them to adapt more adequately to reality. At the same time, they will develop their ability to use imagination. Imagination may help them overcome difficulties they face in reality. Playing in early childhood also encompasses learning. This is because children learn the feeling of wanting to play—the will to play—and play nurtures behavior that enables them to develop curiosity, the basis of learning throughout life.


The Place of Play in the National Curriculum

In the national curriculum for early childhood education in preschools in Japan importance is placed on “promoting proactive activities of children so they will be able to lead a preferable life as a child,” and “comprehensive teaching through play which is a voluntary activity conducted by children.” This shows that play in early childhood education is considered very important. Teachers are asked to come up with ways to enable children to proactively participate in play, while at the same time inserting teachers’ ideas into the school environment structure. In the preschools that follow this national curriculum children are able to spend two thirds of a day doing things that they have proactively selected. As mentioned in the definition, the foundation of this is the notion that play encompasses learning.


Types of Play in Early Childhood

Sensory motor play. An infant becomes aware of the world around him using his body, and develops many functions through the interaction with his surroundings. The younger the child, the more important the role of the body. Jean Piaget (1951) called use of the body in play sensory motor play.

One of the most popular sensory motor play activities among Japanese children is playing in the sand box. Children at preschool never get tired of sand boxes. They touch the sand, mix it with water, make dumpling shapes with it, dig a hole in the sand, or create a mountain in the sand box. They utilize all their senses, including touch, sight, and movement, feeling the coldness of sand or water, its weight, hardness, and softness, looking at the colors and shapes. They also make use of their cognitive ability and mental capacity during their adventures in the sandbox.


Symbolic play. The characteristics of symbolic play or make-believe play are “awareness of oneself and others” and “awareness of reality and fiction.” Through children’s development, this play tends to include larger and larger numbers of children, developing into mass symbolic play such as “playing house.”

In Japanese preschool education, teachers support further enhancement of make-believe play by creating corners for playing house and providing large-sized or regular-sized building blocks to stimulate children’s imagination. Importance is also placed on developing relationships with others through collective symbolic play. Children aged 4-5 engage in sophisticated symbolic play with stories and fictive human relationships. As their play becomes more deepened, teachers should support the children to establish relationships among each other through these activities.


Game play. During early childhood, children tend to pursue playing games with various rules, through which they learn that “everyone is equal under the rules.” They also acquire the foundation of a sense of ethics such as fairness and equality.

Let’s take playing soccer as an example. Today 4-year-old children are often playing soccer in the playground of kindergartens. At the beginning, they play alone, kicking the ball toward the goal. Then they begin kicking the ball among them. At the age of 5, they play soccer games by dividing themselves into teams. However, as they have no rules whatsoever for establishing a team, it often happens that one team wins because of a larger number of members. Children may get frustrated by this, and the game may end spontaneously just as it started. As they repeat this process, children realize that teams would work better if both teams had the same number of players, and that games wouldn’t be fun if they cheat. Children learn through trial and error that games would be more fun with rules. In Japanese preschools, teachers don’t impose rules on children at the beginning. What teachers try to accomplish is for the children to figure out who and what they are through self-generated games. By respecting children’s learning process, adults hope that they learn “morality” as well.


Expressive play. Expressive play has many cultural elements that lead to the nurturing of artistic qualities in children. This includes musical play such as listening to music and playing to musical rhythms, plastic play such as molding, and word play such as listening to stories, reading picture books and playing “first and last” the word game shiritori. Compared to other types of play, adults tend to support children actively with more cultural background, so that children can create a higher level of expressive activities using the techniques and knowledge of the teacher.

For example, when a teacher shows “The Three Billy Goats”(a Scandinavian story of three goats and trolls and one of the favorite books for Japanese children) and tells the story, children listen intently to it and cheer at the climax. They beg to have it read over and over again. While the teacher reads the story to them every day, he/she also encourages them to create “The Three Billy Goats Play.” The teacher proposes that they make a scene for the story. Using large-sized blocks, the children build a bridge. They themselves play the roles of goats and trolls, and this goes on for days. During this sequence of play over several days, children improve the way of constructing the bridge, or of creating costumes from clothing. Sometimes they add music. If one child is playing both the big goat and the small goat, he invents ways to change his face expressions and voices. By allocating responsibilities the relationships among children will deepen through this play.


Challenges Facing Play in Japanese Society

Through play, a child repeatedly goes through the process of “thinking while taking action,” which constitutes a basis for abstract thinking for the future. However, play environments that enable children to come up with voluntary playing activities have decreased dramatically. Playing, which was originally “natural,” has become part of “education.” In other cases, children are given a “culture for children” created by adults, rather than creating their own culture through play. The deterioration of environments for play also makes it difficult to nurture children’s abilities to interact with one another and to be aware of others’ feelings and thinking. Keeping in mind today’s Japanese social circumstances, the following requirements for play in early childhood become more and more important. Play should be proactive, creative, fulfilling, comprehensive, expose children to diversified experiences, and nurture cooperation among children. Finally, it should be experienced through the body.

As for teachers’ role, this involves grasping the challenges faced in the children’s development and supporting them in adequate manner. Teachers must observe children from the child’s perspective, while at the same time having expectations for them. They should consider the play environment carefully, ensuring that it is designed so that children can discover by themselves that learning is fun.

Further Readings: Nishimura, K. (1989). Asobi no genshougaku (Phenomenology of play). Tokyo; Keisou-shobou (in Japanese); Piaget, J. (1951). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Routledge; Uchida, N. (1986). Gokko kara Fantaji he (From make-believe to fantasy). Tokyo; Shinyo-sha. (in Japanese).

Reiko Irie


Imagination and Creativity in the Early Childhood Classroom:

Current Issues in Japan

In Japan, nurturing imagination and creativity is an important basis of early childhood education. Activities intended to nurture children’s imagination and creativity involve not only artistic activities such as music, dance, drawing, and craft, but also other experiences including communication with other people and interaction with the environment. Among these, artistic activities are given special emphasis. These activities enrich children’s emotions, cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities and cultural consciousness, and develop their relationships with others, as well as developing their cognitive skills and intellectual abilities. These effects cannot be realized by any other activities.


National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens

The National Curriculum Standards for kindergartens show five areas corresponding to several aspects of children’s development. Among them, the area of Expression is particularly concerned with artistic activities.

The aims of expression at the kindergarten-level are the following:

• To develop enriched feelings toward beauty

• To enjoy expressing what one feels and thinks in individual ways.

• To understand expression enriches images and experiences in life.

The contents of expression are as follows:

1. Children recognize and enjoy the various kinds of sounds, colors, forms, texture, and movements in life.

2. Children come into contact with beauty and things that move people emotionally in life, and create enriched images.

3. Children express joy when impressed by an act of expression.

4. Children express thoughts and feelings freely through sounds, movement, drawing, painting, and other media.

5. Children are familiar with various materials and making use of them creatively in play.

6. Children are familiar with music. Students enjoy singing and using simple rhythmical instruments.

7. Children enjoy drawing, painting, and creating. Students use what they create in play and as decoration.

8. Children experience expressing their own images in words and movements, performing, and playing.

The following points for dealing with the contents are mentioned in The National Curriculum Standards:

1. Children’s feelings will be enriched if they encounter beautiful and fine things. The images and objects that move children emotionally should have a rich connection with their surrounding natural and physical environment. A strong interaction between environment and experience can be fostered if children share their impressions with other children and teachers, and express their impressions through the arts.

2. Children’s self-expression is unique to childhood, but may seem simple. Teachers should encourage children to express themselves in their own ways, by being receptive to children’s expression and by acknowledging the willingness of children to express themselves.

3. Teachers should provide developmentally appropriate play equipment and apparatus that allow children to fully express their intentions.

It is noted in the National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens that artistic activities should not be considered as opportunities for domain-specific trainings, or as preparation for elementary school learning. They should be intended as a part of children’s daily experiences.

According to the National Curriculum Standards, art activities in kindergarten are planned to help children develop wholly, by providing experiences in their everyday lives. Kindergarten teachers carefully refrain from forcing children into specialized drills or training, but instead encourage them to express their ideas and feelings freely. Artistic and aesthetic programs are more often related to children’s interaction with nature and their play than to intentional instruction designed to improve their skills or to increase their knowledge.


Imagination and Creativity in Musical Activities

Singing, playing instruments, and listening to music are familiar musical activities in Japanese kindergartens. Music curriculum is related to seasons, annual events, and children’s daily lives. Music is often integrated with drama, dance, and the visual arts. One activity may involve singing, playing instruments, dancing, and making crafts. A comprehensive overall view of these activities is shown in The National Curriculum Standards.

The National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens were revised in 1989, when the area “Expression” was introduced for the first time. Music educators and researchers who are engaged in early childhood education have come to realize that the experiences suggested in the National Curriculum Standards can build the foundation of children’s musical knowledge. Music education researchers do not expect kindergarten teachers to provide children with specialized musical training, nor a musical program that is to prepare for the elementary school music learning. Children’s musical activities in kindergartens include making sounds with objects around them and listening to sounds in the environment, as well as singing, playing instruments, and listening to music.


Integrating Sounds in the Environment

Children live surrounded by the sounds of their daily lives. They listen to sounds such as falling raindrops, blowing wind through a bamboo grove, singing birds, and other sounds from nature. When children listen to these sounds, they associate them with images and engage their imaginations. For example, children may take turns putting a spiral seashell up to their ears, and have different reactions.

Some may say there is “a lion,” “sea sound,” or “running water” in the shell. In experiences such as these, sounds provoke imagination, and children make meaning through symbol and expression.

Children also make many sounds themselves. These sounds do not necessarily come from musical instruments. Children enjoy the exchange of sounds, which sometimes develops into what we can call musical improvisation. In musical improvisation, children communicate what they feel and think through the sounds they make. Experience with sounds motivates children to establish intersubjective relationships with others, enrich their imaginations, assign meanings to sounds, and sometimes organize sounds into a composition.

There are many cases in which a clear distinction between “participating in musical activities” and “being involved in sounds” cannot be made. In other words, children may participate in musical activities such as reproduction of musical pieces, but may also give musical meaning to ordinary sound situations around them. Sometimes listening to sounds around them and listening to music can be equally aesthetic. Making sounds and playing instruments can also be respected as imaginative and creative. In planning musical activities, it is necessary for kindergarten educators to integrate sounds in the environment with sounds produced by musical instruments in children’s everyday experiences.


Other Japanese Musical Programs

In addition to the principle ideas laid out by the National Curriculum Standards, there are several musical programs that are familiar in Japanese kindergartens. These imported methods are combined with Japanese traditional and modern repertoires and have taken root in Japanese kindergartens. The Jacques-Dalcroze method was introduced into Japanese early childhood education in the 1920s. K. Orff’s “Music for children” and Koday’s method both became popular in the 1960s. In most cases, these methods intend children’s musical activities to contribute to their development as a whole. Nurturing children’s imagination and creativity parallels the contents of the National Curriculum Standards.


Imagination and Creativity in Plastic Arts Activities

Art activities in Japanese kindergartens are currently called “plastic arts activities.” Visual art was once called “picture painting” in kindergartens, “arts and crafts” in elementary schools, and “fine arts” or “arts and crafts” in junior high schools and high schools. Historically, the aim of art education was to achieve realistic, adult-level art. The conception that “realistic art is good art” affected the content of art activity in the classroom. The lower the age of a child, the simpler the content of the art activity.


Approaches and philosophies in plastic arts curriculum. Humans’ innate senses are stimulated by their immediate environments. From this stimulation, humans actuate and express images. Young children often develop the ability to draw a circle without guidance. The skill develops through spontaneous representation. A young child assigns meaning to his/her image of the circle, and adds lines or other circles to further define his/her image. The teacher can support this spontaneity through a “bottom-up process” in which teachers understand children’s potential. In this process, teachers encourage and assure children as they explore materials. A counter approach would be the “top-down process,” in which teachers give children goals to reach and guide them.

Japanese curriculum currently recognizes that when children are creative and imaginative, they are fully sensitive, stimulated, and motivated by their own initiatives. We cannot expect children be creative and imaginative by following instruction. It is important that art curriculum in early childhood respects the minds and spontaneous will of children. This type of early childhood art activity plays an important part in the development of young children.


Plastic arts activity in practice. “Plastic arts activity” is the act of interaction with objects. Interaction with familiar objects allows children to understand and transform the objects’ shapes, colors, or textures. Transforming the shapes and colors of familiar objects opens up the imagination. In kindergarten, children also combine one object with other ones to make new objects. Teachers provide encounters with these new shapes and colors that widen the possibilities of creation. In art made by both children and adults, objects are the media of expression that stimulate expression and are then manipulated. When we express our emotion on objects, they respond to us through transformation. Sometimes objects we make have the power to heal us by their transformed colors or texture. These qualities are true in professional artists’ work, but some assert that children can be artists as well. However, we do not agree with this assertion. We do not identify children’s art activity with artwork by artists who have more mature awarenesses of spirituality and intention.


Understanding plastic art activity in early childhood. Young children’s art activity has its own world. Children do not reproduce what they see. They try to represent what they are interested in. They focus interest on their own lives, and not on the objective world. Because their art activity reflects their experiences, the richer their experiences in life are, the more imaginative and creative their plastic arts activity. However, as children develop through elementary school, they will become more objective and their plastic arts activity will change its nature.

There is an assertion that the aim of art education is to bring children out of their own world of experience and teach them how to reach adult’s plastic activity. Some educators teach children “how to draw a person.” Some instruct them to paint an object with its original color. Some give them a theme of a picture to draw. These types of instructions neglect children’s subjectivity and fail to enrich their imagination and creativity.

Further Readings: Schafer, M. (1992). A Sound Education. Tokyo: Shunjusha; Ooba, M. (1996). Hyougen genron (Principles of expression). Tokyo: Hobun-shorin (in Japanese); Saeki, Y., H. Fujita, and M. Sato, eds. (1995). Hyougensha to shite sodatsu (Growing up as expressive individuals). Tokyo: Tokyo University Press (in Japanese).

Kyoko Imagawa and Tomohisa Hirata


Infant and Toddler Care in Japan

Where are Japanese Infants and Toddlers during the Day?

Most Japanese infants under the age of 1 are at home, and as they get older, the percentage of enrollment at day-care centers increases. The table below provides an overview of the settings containing infants and toddlers nationwide.


Where Japanese children under three years spend their days





Day-care center

Other child care facilities













Source: Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor, 2003.


Most of these children are looked after by their mothers full time, regardless of age, until they are three years old. Among the many reasons why so many mothers have left their jobs to devote themselves to child-rearing has been a strong child-rearing belief, prevailing since the late seventies, referred to as the “legend of three-year-old child.” Influenced by the theory of attachment, it asserts that to assure a child’s healthy personality development, a mother has to be totally responsible of bringing up her child until he/she becomes three years old. Therefore, many mothers prefer to take care of their children by themselves before sending them to kindergarten at the age of 3.

However, since the 1990s, the number of women with infants who continue to work has rapidly increased. These working women prefer day-care centers rather than grandmothers or babysitters. In the last fifteen years alone, places at day-care centers have increased 1.8 times for infants under one (71,000) and 1.6 times for toddlers of 1 and 2 years of age (500,000). Often, demand exceeds supply; infants account for 10 percent and toddlers comprise 58 percent of the waiting lists at public centers. Local governments are trying to respond to this increase in demand for day-care centers for children under the age of 3. Other childcare facilities such as family care and small day-care rooms are concentrated in big cities where supply for day-care centers is far from satisfactory.



The first Japanese day-care center was created at the end of the nineteenth century in the countryside, where children of agricultural families were accepted while their mothers were working in the field. Day-care rooms were also established in some elementary schools for the younger brothers and sisters of school children, because otherwise the school-aged children had to baby-sit for their siblings within their own classrooms while their parents were working. These early facilities were as basic as open schoolrooms staffed with caretakers. At the beginning of the twentieth century a day-care center was opened in a popular area of Tokyo for families of the lower class. This center was staffed with teachers who were specialists, educated at the first teacher training school for women. These teachers gave both care and education to children. These private centers were funded by charitable persons and social activists, and public centers soon followed. The aim of helping mothers and children of lower socioeconomic classes continued until World War II. After the war, new systems were introduced through both educational and welfare policies. Since 1948, day-care centers have been controlled by the Ministry of Social Welfare. The first national guidelines were established in 1952. Nevertheless, it was private day-care centers and daycare rooms that continued supporting working mothers and their children under the age of 3. These facilities varied in quality of the care they provided. Some were run based on educational principles, while others just babysat the children. Mothers had to wait until 1972 for the first public care of infants. Since then, private facilities have chosen different approaches; many have established approved centers, while others have decided to remain unapproved.


The Day-Care Center System

In Japan, a day-care center is legally under the control of the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor, and operates under the Law of Child Welfare. It accepts children from infancy to 6 years of age, from parents who are unable to take care of them because of work or illness. Although it depends on the individual center, legally a child must be at least two months old in order to be placed in a day-care center. In 2005, there were 23,000 centers with 2,000,000 children from 0 to 6 years of age. Thirty percent of these children ranged from 0 to 2 years of age. There are public day-care centers (56% of all centers in 2003) that are operated by local governments, approved private centers, which are run under the same conditions as public centers, and non-approved private centers. As for public and approved private day-care centers, minimal standards of physical and staff conditions are set by the Ministry of Welfare and Labor. According to the authorities, a baby room should have at least 1.65 m2 per child and for crawling babies, 3 3 m2 per child. A center is open for more than twelve hours a day, including eight normal hours and then extended hours. The teacher/child ratio is 3 children for 1 teacher for a baby class, 6 children for 1 teacher for a class of toddlers of 1 and 2 years of age. Besides nursery teachers and the director, a center should also have a nurse if it has baby classes, a nutritionist and cooks.

Nonapproved centers are free from control of standards but are not subsidized by the government. Some centers accommodate mothers’ needs not met by normal centers. For instance, there are “baby hotels” for children of mothers who work for long hours or at night.


Programs of Care and Education

The Japanese name for day-care center—“hoiku-en”—means “facility for care and education.” It offers both care services and education to even the youngest children. The Ministry of Welfare and Labor provides guidelines that give an overview of development, principles and objectives, and the teachers’ roles and practices for children of each age level. For children under 3 years old, the guidelines have four chapters according organized around the following age levels; under 6 months old, 6-15 months old, 16-23 months old, and 24-35 months old. Care of infants and toddlers addresses health, physical cleanliness, nutrition, rhythm of life, and security. As for education, following the guidelines of kindergarten by the Ministry of Education, five domains of education are applied: health, human relations, interest in the surrounding environment, language, and expression.

According to the guidelines, when caring for infants under 15 months of age, day-care centers are responsible for promoting health, physical cleanliness, and nutrition. Centers are also responsible for establishing a rhythm of life, as well as security and emotional bonding between the teacher and each child under her/his care. Establishing and maintaining this affective bond with the teacher is believed to be of particular importance for a child’s psychological security. Therefore, adult-infant interaction is very frequent, with physical contacts such as touching, holding, and playing in physical intimacy. The Japanese believe that play with adults stimulates curiosity which in turn promotes cognitive development.

Baby foods are cooked in different ways depending on children’s age in months (from four to seven steps until 18 months old). Even during the weaning period the meal is meant not only for nourishment but also is also an occasion for enjoyment and having aesthetic sensory experiences. Cooks prepare various plates with different tastes and colors so that children of each age level can enjoy eating them. Because sleeping and emotional security are valued, a teacher accompanies a child until he/she falls asleep. Diaper changes are frequent, so that a baby becomes accustomed to being clean and develops a sensitivity to uncleanliness. Additionally, nature is an important component of Japanese day-care centers. Going outdoors is seen as indispensable for promoting health. For example, even in winter, babies “take a walk” in a baby carriage, as it is believed that outdoor activities help children get in touch with nature.

Training children to be autonomous begins between the ages of 15-23 months. It is believed that children can acquire autonomy through emotional security and attachment to teachers. Care is taken not to destroy the important bond the child has with adults. The first stages of this training entail having the child eat by him/herself, using a spoon, and toilet training. Physical movements such as going up and down steps, and manipulation with the hands are encouraged in play and in outdoor activities. Also, listening to a teacher telling a story or singing stimulates the child’s interest in language and expressive activities.

Two-year-olds have more autonomous tasks; taking off clothes, washing hands, going to the toilet by oneself, and eating by oneself are introduced with support from the teachers. Relationships with other children are respected. Developing conversations with teachers, looking at picture books and theater are seen as opportunities to enjoy speaking. Materials such as water, sand, mud, flowers, leaves, and seeds are incorporated in outdoor play to help children begin to have an understanding of nature.


Family Day Care

Family day care is a system of day care where an approved caregiver, often called a “day-care mom,” cares for not more than three children under the age of 3 at her home. Local governments organize and control this system of care. These governments give subsidies to day-care moms and also introduce parents to them. Since their creation in Kyoto City in the 1950s, these centers have played the role of “waiting rooms” for day-care centers. The number has been limited (1400 caregivers in 120 local governments in 1999) and concentrated in urban areas. Recently, however, this system has been reexamined due to a growing diversity of needs. Parents who want their babies to grow up in family circumstances rather than in a collective setting prefer this mode of care. The task for local governments is how to assure a professional quality of care by these moms and a satisfactory quality of the settings in which they provide care.


Recent Trends in the Public Care of lnfants and Toddlers

We are now in transitional period for public day care. There are four big trends surrounding day care of children. The first point is diversification of needs. With the increase in working mothers, the variety of working styles demands diverse forms of day care; acceptance of children at night, care rooms for children while they are ill, creation of day-care centers in front of subway stations for the convenience for parents, and so forth.

The second trend relates to how Japan can best support full-time mothers. Urbanized lifestyle has contributed to young mother’s feelings of isolation. Some investigations show that many mothers find child-rearing painful work. The drastic decline in the fertility rate (1.29 in 2005) has shocked the government. Partly as a result, the Ministry of Welfare and Labor and local governments have instituted various child-rearing support policies. However, with insufficient budgets and without long-term perspectives, these policies are not always effective. Daycare centers are given additional tasks for providing various supports to full-time mothers. Examples include temporary day care, group activities for mothers, and consultations with mothers (face-to-face and by telephone). However, these are often carried out without additional specialized staff, which brings teachers nothing but more work. These supports need to be improved in order for the day-care centers to function well.

The third trend, which has begun in some big cities and is going to extend to other areas, is the privatization of public day-care centers. This privatization policy contains “freedom from minimum standards,” which may lead to the decline of quality of care. Some privatized centers are run by enterprises that follow “market principles.” While they aim to respond to “users’ needs,” they think the users are mothers and not children.

The fourth trend is the transformation of present kindergartens and other facilities into new organizations called “comprehensive facilities of care and education,” which have been created through collaboration between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Welfare and Labor. This system places various modes of care and education in one facility: kindergarten, day-care centers, temporary day care, playroom for parent-child, etc. Although this system looks like an ideal care place because of its availability and flexibility, it was initiated without sufficient preparation; for example, kindergarten teachers without training are working with infants.

In the day care of infants and toddlers, we are facing a situation that raises the question, “which is important, mothers’ needs or children’s happiness?” The social trend has been toward mothers. However, we have to look at children to ask, “what are the best conditions of care and education for infant and toddlers in day care?” To answer this question, in addition to our long history of past experiences, we need more useful theories based on sufficient scientific data.

Further Readings: Hoshi-Watanabe, M. (2000). Mode de garde et education des enfants de moins de trois ans au Japon. In G. Brougere and S. Rayna, eds., Traditions et innovations dans l’education prescolaire. Paris: INRP (in French), pp. 65-94; Ministry of Welfare and Labor. (1999). Guidelines of care and education at day care centers. Revised version in 1999 (in Japanese); Morikami, S. (2004). Recent documentation on education and care in Japan. Kyoto; Minerva shobo (in Japanese).

Miwako Hoshi-Watanabe


Inclusion, Care, and Education for Children with Special Needs in Japan


In Japan, special education has been serving children with disabilities since the end of the Second World War. The educational practices designed for these children are based on the kinds and the degrees of the disabilities. However, several changes have occurred in the special education field during the last decade. Some of these changes are: increased social interests to normalization; increased severity and variety of disabilities among children; and an increased awareness of mild developmental disabilities of children who are enrolling in regular schools. To respond to these changes, Japan’s special education program is facing a crucial turning point, prompting it to review its mission and its methods of practice.

To develop new concepts and systems, an Advisory Committee on Future Directions for Special Education in the 21st Century was organized in 2001. The committee’s final report was submitted to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in March, 2003. According to the report, basic concepts for developing special education for the future were stated as follows: “In line with the government policy for enhancing normalization in our society, a lifelong support system shall be developed through cooperation among every sector in society to promote children’s autonomy and participation in all aspects of society.”

The 2001 report indicates that the kinds and the degrees of disabilities are no longer the main focuses of special education; rather the specific needs of children with disabilities are the focus. In other words, special education in Japan is moving away from separated/integrative education and shifting toward an inclusive education model. Along with this change, MEXT has shifted the term from “Special Education” (Tokushu-Kyoiku) to “Special Support Education” (Tokubetu-Shien-Kyoiku).

Since this conceptual change, Special Support Education is in a transitional period. Therefore, these new concepts have not yet been fully implemented in the Japanese school systems.


The Special School System

Children with severe or profound disabilities are eligible to attend the special schools (Yougo-Gakkou) for the blind, the deaf, children with intellectual disabilities, children with physical disabilities, and children with health impairments. Distinctive programs are prepared to meet each child’s needs in special schools. There are four levels of schools in the special school system: kindergartens, elementary schools, lower secondary and upper secondary schools. For children who cannot attend schools, special schoolteachers are provided through a home-visit program. Socialization is an important component of the special school system. In order to promote the children’s participation in society, children in special schools are encouraged to be involved in activities in regular classes with their peers (Koryu-Kyoiku) and activities in the community.


Special Classes

Special classes (Tokushu-Gakkyu or Shinsho-Gakkyu), which are located in elementary and lower secondary schools, are available for children with moderate and mild disabilities. Children who participate in these special classes join their peers in regular classes in some subjects and school activities. Children with mild disabilities enrolling in regular classes are eligible to attend resource rooms (Tukyu) depending on their special needs. MEXT provides the Course of Study (Gakushyu-shido-yoryo) and national curriculum standards for schools. Each school develops distinctive curricula according to the needs of the children.


The Road to Inclusion

Although the actual implementation of inclusive education has not yet been accomplished, the 2001 Advisory Committee provided several concrete proposals based on the earlier mentioned concepts, such as; (1) the possible amendment of The Order for Enforcement of the School Education Law regarding placement of children with disabilities; (2) Establishment of special support services in regular classes for children with special educational needs such as Learning Disabilities (LD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and so on; (3) Establishment of new functions of special schools as local Special Education centers; (4) Reconsideration of the classroom management system of special classes and resource rooms; (5) Promotion of enrollment to upper secondary schools and enrichment of life-long learning of people with disabilities; (6) Encouragement of professional development for Special Education personnel.

Some efforts in line with these proposals were already underway. For example, in 2001, the Advisory Committee on the “National Agenda for Special Support Education” was established to help clarify the future role of special schools and search for better support for children with mild disabilities including LD, ADHD, and high functioning autisms who were attending regular classes. The committee suggested five objectives: (1) To make Individual Education Programs (IEP) for each child; (2) To place a Special Support Education coordinator in each school (including special schools as well as elementary and secondary schools); (3) To organize a committee to coordinate local administrative departments of Special Support Education; (4) To transform special schools to local Special Support Education centers; and (5) To integrate special classes and resource rooms into Special Support Education rooms.

The objectives appear to facilitate the development of an adequate environment for promoting inclusive education. However, as mentioned above, implementation in schools has only recently begun and educators are struggling to develop Special Support Education in their schools. It is expected that the objectives listed above will take time to implement and will be achieved in the near future.


Support Services for Children

Regarding children before school age, various types of social welfare services are available to support children with special needs. Since the 1960s, pediatricians, public health nurses, and psychologists have performed health examinations for all children from infancy to 3 years of age. Follow-up programs, or early intervention programs, are available for at-risk children and their parents. These programs involve specialists in local Child Guidance Offices (Jidou-soudansho), Health Care Centers (Hoken Center), Centers for Handicapped Children (Shougai-Fukushi Center) and the like.

After the follow-up programs, most of the children who need Special Support Education attend Yochien (Kindergartens for children from 3 to 6 years old), Hoikuen (Day-care centers for children from infancy to 6 years old) and/or facilities for children with special needs.

In facilities for children with special needs, specialists such as early childhood educators/caregivers, doctors, psychologists, physical therapists, and speech therapists guide individualized programs in a small group setting. However, these facilities may differ, as the availability of the specialists and programs varies among local governments.

In recent years, an increased number of children with special needs have been integrated into the public Yochien and Hoikuen. It is very common for public Yochien and Hoikuen to accept two or three children with special needs. In many provinces and cities, the local government provides additional financial support so the program can employ an extra educator or a caregiver for children with special needs. However, there is a lack of trained special needs educators/caregivers. Although children who attend Yochien or Hoikuen are able to continuously receive periodical checkups and guidance at the local Child Guidance Offices, Health Care Centers, and Facilities for Children with Special Needs, professional supports are still needed in Yochien and Hoikuen.

To solve this problem, outreach programs (Junkai-Soudan) by consulting staff members, who are mostly psychologists, are becoming popular among public Yochien and Hoikuen. Such programs provide professional support for educators/caregivers and parents, along with suggestions on how to plan an individualized program for the children. These outreach programs help facilitate inclusive education and care in early childhood education. Unfortunately, these services are not available for most of the private Yochien (about 60% of all Yochien are private) and the private Hoikuen (about 45% of all Hoikuen are private) in Japan. Thus, it is essential to build a system that extends outreach programs to private Yochien and Hoikuen.


Teacher Training

Another way to solve the problem is to provide educational opportunities for early childhood educators and caregivers, helping them learn about special support education. Some efforts are already made, for example, caregivers in Hoikuen are required to complete a subject “Caring for Handicapped Children (Shougaiji-Hoikuy’ as it is part of the national curriculum. To improve the quality of special support educators, the National Institute of Special Education (NISE) and local Special Education Centers are assisting the government by offering specialized training programs for educators.


Fostering Inclusiveness and Cooperation in Schools

It is also crucial to facilitate collaboration and cooperation among teachers/caretakers, parents, and schools. Without fostering an inclusiveness, their educational initiatives will be ineffective. As discussed above, special, elementary, and secondary schools hope to place a coordinator of Special Support Education in each school. However, few discussions have been officially initiated for facilitating collaboration and cooperation among them in Yochien and Hoikuen, with most efforts stemming from individual educators or caregivers.

Partnership between the families with and without handicapped children is another key to promoting inclusive education. Partnerships among the families with handicapped children have been increasing in the last decades. A number of parents with handicapped children have organized groups and are taking active roles in our society. On the other hand, not enough attention has been paid to partnerships between the families with handicapped children and the ones without them.

The present situation of Special Support Education in Japan, particularly in early childhood education and care, calls out for improvement in a number of areas. The new concepts of Special Support Education and their implementation are expected to become established practice in the near future.

Further Readings: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: MEXT (2002). Special Support Education in Japan-Education for Children with Special Needs; Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: MEXT (2005). Special Support Education. Available online at http://www.mext.go.jp/english/org/formal.

Keiko Gondo


Public Policies in Japan

Today, the child-rearing environment and education have become important issues for several reasons: the declining childbirth rate, the trend toward nuclear families, the lessening of the importance of education in the community, the increasing numbers of working women, and the trend toward academic competences. The political movement supporting early childhood education and care is changing rapidly. This section focuses on the main issues facing Japan: the future of early childhood education, establishing connections between early childhood and elementary school education, and improving the quality and expertise of kindergarten teachers based on the recent policy trends set by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).


The Future of Early Childhood Education in a Changing Environment

Recently the Central Council for Education (2004) published a report titled “The future of early childhood education based on the changing environment surrounding children,” in which early childhood is regarded as a critical growth period for cultivating the very basis of human development. Several directions for the future of early childhood education were proposed. The first was the “overall promotion of early childhood education by the home/community/institution.” Early childhood education should insure the healthy growth of children, with a balance of educational responsibility among three areas: the home, the community, and institutions such as kindergarten, which is seen as enriching early childhood education. However, the power to educate at home and in the community has decreased with the rapidly changing social environment, affecting education in institutions such as kindergarten. Accordingly, one current focus is the “enrichment of early childhood education based on the continuity of children’s lives, development, and learning,” which encompasses such areas as the reinforcement and improvement of the continuity between early childhood and elementary school education, and assurance of a smooth transition for prekindergarten children who are under three years of age to kindergarten.


Key Issues and Related Policies

The following three issues and seven policies for enriching early childhood education were listed in the report. The key issues are as follows:

1. Reinforcing and expanding the function of education.

2. Regenerating and empowering the home and community.

3. Reinforcing the foundations that support early childhood education.

The related policies are as follows:

1. To provide all children the opportunities for early childhood education.

2. To improve early childhood education, focusing on developmental needs and the continuity of learning from preschool to elementary school.

3. To foster the professional development of kindergarten teachers.

4. To regenerate and empower home and community education by preschool institutions.

5. To regenerate and empower home and community education by strengthening a policy that supports both lifelong learning and work.

6. To utilize human resources in the community.

7. To reinforce the support base for early childhood education in the community.


From Early Childhood Education to School Education

Emphasis must be placed on a curriculum, environment, and a support system based on child development and learning continuity, focusing on the transition from learning through play during early childhood to learning set subjects in elementary school. During early childhood, children encounter many people, things, and events, and accumulate experiences through play and everyday life experiences. These experiences foster “sprouts” that contribute to a base for further learning about life and study in school, self-development, and morality. Teachers must recognize the sprout within each child, and construct an appropriate environment for its growth. Continuity in the preschool and school curriculums is needed, and it is especially important to consider the transition period prior to starting elementary school. The 2004 Report of the Central Council for Education proposed an interchange of personnel, a program that connected and led to collaborative activities between kindergarten and elementary schoolteachers, and encouraged the implementation of model schools. Based on these proposals, the Curriculum Research Center of the National Institute for Educational Policy Research published a guide called “From early childhood education to elementary school education” (February 2005).


Quality improvement and the Expertise of Kindergarten Teachers

The Central Council for Education has indicated that to improve the quality of teachers and their expertise, there is a need for the improvement of training, the promotion of participation in training, and a study of measures to increase the number of teachers possessing a bachelor’s degree. In response to the “Early Childhood Education Promotion Program” by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, a study of improving the quality of kindergarten teachers was conducted. The report in 2002 presented the following points as expertise required of kindergarten teachers:

• The ability to understand children’s thinking and to comprehensively instruct them.

• The ability to make and implement plans.

• The fostering of teachers’ own speciality, cooperativeness as a member of the teachers’ group.

• The ability to respond to children who need special educational consideration.

• The ability to promote collaboration between elementary schools and day-care centers.

• The ability to build relations with guardians (parents) and the community.

• Leadership displayed by executive officers, such as a principal.

• An understanding on human rights.

One approach to improving the quality of teachers has been voluntary in-service training efforts. In particular, the importance has been stressed of enriching training both within and outside kindergartens, of designing training based on amount of teaching experience (newly appointed teachers, young teachers, mid-level teachers, executive officers), and of focusing training on a diverse set of needs (for example, instruction of disabled children, consultation on child raising, attitude and mentality needed for counseling, etc.). Collaboration between the field of early childhood education and universities engaged in the preparation of kindergarten teachers is very important, and the role of such universities is significant.

Further Readings: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: (MEXT). (1998). National Curriculum Standards for Kindergartens. Available online athttp://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/youji/english/youryou/index; Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: (MEXT). Available online at http://www.mext.go.jp/; Oda, Y. (2004). Tracing the development of Japanese kindergarten education—Focusing on changes of contents and curriculum. Bulletin of National Institute for Educational Policy Research 133, 77-84; Research Center for Child and Adolescent Development and Education: (RCCADE) (2004). Early Childhood Education Handbook. Tokyo; Ochanomizu University.

Takako Noguchi