For aspirational parents and students in Japan, entering elite colleges abroad—especially those in the United States—has long been an important goal.
Traditionally, they sought to do so by attending select junior high schools, high schools, as well as universities, in Japan—particularly those with international programs. Such schools were stepping-stones to studying overseas.
Increasingly, however, these students and their guardians have sought educational institutions outside the school system with expertise in preparing students for study abroad.
With such offerings, the path to a Western education has widened, and more and more students based in Japan are getting into elite non-Japanese schools.
That’s what industry professionals and students told The ACCJ Journal. They noted, however, that barriers to the West still exist. This is especially true of Japanese nationals, for whom the language barrier may be the greatest stumbling block.
And that’s quite apart from social and cultural roadblocks that prevent Japan-based students from traveling too far afield.
That said, the experts and students all shared the view that things are changing. Given the opportunity to live abroad or access international educational programs at home, many more Japan-originated and international students will seek to study outside Japan.
Teru Clavel, for example, is an American–Japanese mother of three children who has lived in China, Japan, and the United States.
An education consultant, Clavel is the author of "World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Across the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children."
Like many parents living abroad—especially in Japan—she has thought deeply about her children’s education, in particular where they should go for college.
In "World Class," she relates the challenges of educating multinational children in the United States and, then, in local schools in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
Clavel was raised and educated mainly in the United States, but she visited Japan regularly during her childhood. Even so, she experienced culture shock in 2012, when she relocated to Tokyo immediately after having spent six years in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Clavel was surprised by the amount of time that a parent, usually the mother, must invest in their children’s education in Japan.
She didn’t expect that, although she was a working mom, she would have to spend entire weekends volunteering in her children’s parent-teacher association (PTA), for instance.
“You could never get away with that in the United States. You can never tell a parent you have to be a PTA volunteer for a year,” she said.
And, yet, while she was initially very reluctant to buy into that system, in the end, she found it to be “beautiful.”
“It really showed me how parent involvement is so integral to the success of the kids.” Clavel discovered that, in Japan, the members of the community—parents, teachers, students, and others—walk hand-in-hand when it comes to a child’s education.
The foundation of Japan’s education system is deeply rooted in a strong sense of community and a clear sense of identity, Clavel pointed out.
This is the case even for a family such as hers. Despite having lived in cities around the world, her children felt rooted with her as their anchor in Japan.
But that is not always the case for Japanese who return home having lived abroad—the so-called returnees. For this demographic, finding alternatives outside the traditional Japanese school system is often the best solution.
Why? In some cases, it’s because, having been away from Japan for a period of time, they have fallen behind in many respects, said Michael Ringen, president of Alpha Frontiers, a company established in 2005 in Tokyo that prepares Japan-originated students—including returnees and the children of expats—for study abroad.
For Ringen, returnees often feel more at home in the international-based curriculum in Japan than in traditional domestic schools. This may be because they missed out on the communal activities that anchored families such as Clavel’s, or they missed critical years when key elements of Japanese language, culture, and social structure are taught.
The upshot is that, rather than try to catch up in the traditional Japanese school system, they choose instead to attend international programs or schools. Or they choose companies such as Alpha Frontiers to help them prepare for study abroad.
Clavel agrees. She added that, as in her case, some parents choose simply to relocate the entire family to Japan.
Miyu and Ken are 19-year-old Japanese returnees. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Both are alumni of Route H, a curriculum run by education and publishing company Benesse Corporation that prepares domestic students, students in international schools, and returnees for elite colleges abroad. Through Alpha Frontiers, Ringen has produced Benesse’s program for more than a decade and has worked with Japan’s best students, including Miyu and Ken.
“Besides Route H, we help other Benesse programs, companies, institutions, and private high schools send more students abroad,” Ringen said. “As an educational consultancy, we find solutions to education-related problems—including staffing, curriculum designs, and test and materials development.”
Ken’s family lived in Malaysia and Australia, where he had spent a portion of his elementary school years. When the time came to think about college, Ken searched the internet for guidance on attending colleges in the United States.
“When I came back to Japan, one of the options I had in my mind was to go to university in the United States or the United Kingdom,” he told The ACCJ Journal.
The other option was to study in a Japanese university. And, yet, he looked forward to the “nomadic lifestyle” that he had been exposed to as a child.
He found Alpha Frontiers’ Route H program, and that led him to Yale University.
Like Ken, Miyu spent her formative years abroad. In her case, she attended kindergarten and an international elementary school for seven years in Hong Kong.
Due to that experience, she said, “there was always this desire to try to live in a different country and experience a different type of education.”
To that end, she, too, attended Route H to prepare for study abroad. While she is currently at Keio University, she has taken time off to investigate continuing her education overseas.
Miyu has set her sights on elite colleges in the United States. Why is that?
“Even if I’m going to a Japanese university, I feel like a lot of the people around me have similar backgrounds,” she said. “I feel like that’s something that happens because of the [very homogeneous] application system for Japanese schools. But American universities emphasize attracting diverse groups of people. That community was something that really appealed to me.”
Based in the Nishi-azabu neighborhood of Minato Ward, Tokyo Academics provides a preparatory curriculum aimed at returnees and students in international schools living in the metropolis.
The company caters to children from elementary school through high school, many of them coming from Tokyo’s various international schools, explained Neil Nguyen and Tyler Kusunoki.
Nguyen is the founder of Tokyo Academics while Kusunoki is manager of the organization’s college admissions division.
Since its inception in 2013, Tokyo Academics has been focused on providing educational challenges and opportunities that will equip students to stand out on an increasingly competitive global stage.
While it provides a wide range of tutoring and test preparation, its current focus is on developing a student’s unique interests into tangible outputs in the form of independent projects. These customized personal projects challenge students intellectually, develop their interests, and help them to distinguish themselves in a crowded college application field.
Whether it be joining a medical surgery team at Stanford University, writing and presenting an independent research paper on machine learning at Harvard University, or founding the first Women in Science Conference for high school students in Japan, the company challenges students to leverage mentorship and other opportunities to create their own excellence.
Today, the school’s educators—most of whom are from elite colleges in the United States and the United Kingdom—deliver a range of preparatory courses and technical programs. These include academic tutoring, admissions counseling, tech education, and student research.
The path to elite schools overseas continues to expand thanks to companies such as Alpha Frontiers and Tokyo Academics. But many roadblocks remain for aspirational students and parents.
For education providers, one challenge is to align their services with the myriad national educational standards, including the domestic system, the international baccalaureate programs, and advanced placement standards.
At the same time, providers must ensure that aspiring students meet international standards of excellence in their respective areas of interest and are competent in English.
Students must also have the ability to thrive in the West. Preparing them for this may mean reexamining culturally specific challenges, such as critical thinking and self-motivation. Both are prioritized in the West, whereas collective action and rote learning are the traditional focus in Japan.
Ultimately, though, the goal is clear: seeking excellence. As Nguyen said: “What we do here is try to challenge the students to go above and beyond in any way that they can. We want to create a community where anyone can learn anything, because that mindset is essential to student success.”
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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