Forty years ago, a mother from Marin County, California, tried to find a safe, fun place featuring age-appropriate activities for parents and young children to play together. Unable to do so, she started her own program. Ever since, Gymboree Play & Music has been fostering creativity and confidence in children aged 0-5 in 70 countries, including Japan.
The “mommy and me” classes of Gymboree programs are specially designed to help young children learn and develop as they play. The classes also help mothers learn about their child -- how to participate in and encourage his or her development -- while enjoying the simple pleasure of playing together.
Currently, Gymboree is at four locations in Japan – Motoazabu and Jiyugaoka in Tokyo, LaLaport in Yokohama and in Sapporo. In Japan, Kids Learning Network Company has the franchise for Gymboree Play & Music. Children learn art, singing, dancing, sports and cognitive skills as well as English. All classes are held in English with Japanese explanation by the bilingual teachers.
Overseeing operations in Japan are Nicole Yamada and her husband who founded Kids Learning Network Co. Japan Today visits the Motoazabu site to hear more from Yamada.
What is your background?
I am from New York. I came to Japan to study Japanese in Kyoto for one year. Then I went back to the U.S. to graduate. After that, I came back to Tohoku and worked as a translator for the government for two years. I returned to the U.S. to go to business school, which is where I met my husband. We decided to do a business together in Japan and that’s how Gymboree Japan came about. Being from the U.S., I knew about Gymboree and thought it would work in Japan. Kids Learning is a holding company that my husband and I created to bring the franchise to Japan.
When did you open the first Gymboree Japan location?
In 2006. It was this one here at Motoazabu. In total, we have four locations in Japan. We own three and have a sub-franchise in Sapporo.
How do you differ from daycare centers?
A daycare center is usually a drop-off and the mothers don’t stay there. They also have kids of different ages together, whereas we have different classes for different age groups from six months to five. The activities we do are similar with singing and dancing but it is for moms as well as kids. It’s a chance for mothers to make new friends. With a lot of our programming for younger babies, we are teaching mothers a lot about development, which they don’t do in daycare centers. We also teach them new ways to play with their children. On Saturdays and Sundays, we have classes for dads, as well.
Are the children mainly Japanese?
About 80% of the kids are Japanese. I think the English language environment appeals to Japanese parents. In this day and age, they want their children exposed to an English-speaking environment from as young as possible. Our teachers talk to the mothers in Japanese so they don’t feel uncomfortable. We do have non-Japanese kids who come, too. If they have been in Gymboree programs abroad, their membership is valid here, as well. We charge a monthly fee for a once-a-week lesson. Some kids have been with us right through from six months to five, including many siblings as well. We offer a free trial for newcomers.
Do you change the lesson plan for Japan?
The lesson plan is standardized and can be accessed by anyone around the world online. The songs we sing and activities we do are the same wherever you go. The one addition in Japan is that we do bilingual classes with Japanese explanations but the themes themselves are the same.
How do your lessons prepare the Japanese children for when they go into elementary school?
The children acquire a lot more creativity and social communication skills as they get older. And their English level is better. Some kids go on to attend international schools after they leave us; others go Japanese kindergarten but come here on weekends to keep up their English.
How do you market Gymboree in Japan?
The best marketing method is through word of mouth. We also have an Introduce a Friend campaign where mothers who are already here introduce a friend and they and the friend get a discount. We do campaigns every year. For example, now we are doing a spring campaign with discounts. In addition, we have a Facebook and homepage. Because it’s the 40th anniversary of Gymboree in the U.S., they are rebranding, changing colors and so on, so we will be, too, in the next few months.
What sort of personality makes a good Gymboree teacher?
Teachers have to be good voice performers because they need to sing and dance with the children. Ideally, they should have some experience teaching children. They also have to be bilingual which makes it hard to find the right people. We try to encourage teachers to stay for one year and spend a month and a half training them. But a lot are from abroad, so things happen and they have to leave. Many teachers are part-time and are into art and dance.
As a business, how are you doing?
We are doing well and growing. We have one company interested in a sub-franchise in the Kobe area. We prefer to be in residential areas. The Yokohama site is in the LaLaport shopping mall and that is our first experience at being in a mall. It’s harder to get customers there.
What does your online shop sell?
Toys we use in classes. It’s basically a way to extend the Gymboree brand. However, Japanese customs can be a problem with imports, so we buy a lot of products in Japan.
As vice president of Kids Learning Network Co, what do you focus on?
I am here Monday through Friday and do admin, reception, hiring, marketing and PR.© Japan Today