Photo: The ACCJ Journal

Inspired lessons: How Japan’s international schools are evolving

By Helen A Langford-Matsui for The ACCJ Journal

For those working and living in Japan, choosing the right school for their children is a big decision. There are many options, and the best fit depends largely on where you’ll be in the future, not where you are today.

Regardless of those future circumstances, one thing is certain: the traditional international school is evolving. As Yokohama International School head Craig Coutts told The ACCJ Journal, “Education is one of the fastest-changing industries, and it is our duty to make sure we stay ahead.”

From how instructors teach and students learn, to which tools are used and how, education is getting a revamp. Even the mission of education itself is changing. To find out how international schools and universities are adapting, we asked some of Japan’s top institutions what has changed, what is trending, and what to expect in 2018 and beyond.


A teacher stands before 40 students and talks for 40 minutes straight, asking the occasional question to make sure the kids are listening. Sound familiar? Not to today’s students. “A trend in recent decades has seen conventional schools shifting to where Montessori schools have been for more than a century: putting each student at the center of their own personal edu­cational journey,” said James Moore, assistant head of The Montessori School of Tokyo (MST).

Passive learning is out. Active, collaborative, differen­tiated learning is in. This gives students the chance to learn through the ways best suited to their personalities and abilities. What’s important, said Dr. Jim Hardin, head of school at The American School in Japan (ASIJ), is teaching students to be learners.

According to Coutts, students are given a chance to build on the knowledge they already have and “to develop in areas such as creativity, critical thinking, and curiosity.”

Carol Koran, director of learning at Nishimachi International School, explained that, under an active, inquiry-based approach to learning, students generate questions and research the answers. “The focus is taken away from students being passive recipients of information and directed at encouraging students to discover things deliberately.”

Changes in pedagogy have some people asking why, and the answer is simple: educators today know more about the science of learning than they used to. As Hardin explained, “The consequence is that schools are becoming much more intentional about metacognition—the awareness or analysis of one’s own learning or thinking processes—because we know that our students, if they are going to be successful in their university studies and careers, need to be sophisticated learners who can reflect and adjust.”

Photo: The ACCJ Journal


The new methods are supported by a tweaked physical learning environment, which includes technology such as iPads and laptops, and a move away from rows of desks lined up facing the blackboard. Makerspaces, such as the one at ASIJ, allow students to gather together to create, using tools such as 3D printers and computer-controlled cutting machines.

“Technology use,” Hardin explained, “is embedded throughout the curriculum.” That doesn’t mean it’s the focus, however. Moore points out that it’s “a tool to support learning,” and Coutts echoes that sentiment. “Our focus is on how we use [technology] to improve our learning, not the technology itself.”

Outside the classroom, technology is connecting parents and students with teachers. Matt Brady, director of digital learning at Nishimachi, says this “enhances and extends what’s happening in the classroom.”


Improved data gathering and analysis capabilities also allow teachers and administrators to make informed decisions and personalize learning for students.

From improving education to improving children’s lives, “a great learning program should go beyond the traditional academics,” said Coutts. “It should also be strong in supporting the overall growth and well-being of the person.”

MST has the same view. “Our school’s mission,” explained Moore, “is to foster the development of well-rounded, confident, and compassionate problem-solvers who have the ability to ask questions, find answers, and manage information skillfully.”

Looking ahead, Coutts says the focus of education will move “further towards cultivating emotional intelligence, as qualities such as adaptability, perseverance, flexibility, and leadership become more highly valued in the workforce and, indeed, in society in general; and there may even be less emphasis on academic grades.”

Indeed, at ASIJ, Hardin anticipates that the school’s next strategic plan—currently in the works—will place a stronger focus on socio-emotional learning and personalization.


Post-secondary education in Japan is also experiencing an increase in technology integration. Gadgets such as clickers are being used for class participation, YouTube and Ustream are facilitating lectures, and various apps and games are increasing interest in a range of subjects and boosting comprehension. This increased use of technology is bringing forth a distinct set of challenges and changes.

Yuichi Kondo, dean of admissions at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), told The ACCJ Journal, “The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is encouraging universities to become more global, but the majority of Japanese universities are not making the necessary changes in time.”

Not so at APU. From the start, the school has sought a diverse student body and faculty. “Our challenge,” explained Kondo, “is to make APU a university imbued with the idea of global learning, where students and faculty members with different cultural and social backgrounds explore diversity in academic learning and training, and in other non-academic—or noncognitive—training.”

The past five years have seen a growing internationaliza­­tion at Lakeland University Japan (LUJ), which has gone from a student body that was 98 percent Japanese to one that is only 55 percent. Today, LUJ welcomes students from 40 different countries.

According to Dr. Alan Brender, dean of LUJ, this shift in demographics has helped the university find increased success in making learning more student based. “The international students are eager to participate in discussions and, as a result, we have seen a change in the attitudes of the Japanese students.”

Changes in pedagogy are also contributing to the evolution of the student experience, moving away from the straight lecture style of old. “We do not have professors dryly reading from their yellowing pages of notes,” said Brender. “Instead, they incorporate PowerPoint, film clips, YouTube videos, and other visual means to support the information they are imparting.”

Like APU and LUJ, McGill MBA Japan benefits from a diverse student body that includes more than 20 nationalities. Program Director Philip O’Neill said that McGill “relies on a wide range of student interaction—working with peers, making presentations, in-class discussion, and case analysis and discussion.” As in primary and secondary schools, it is important to tailor education to the student. “We personalize the learning experience through our final project, the Practicum, in which students work on a topic of their own choosing.”

In larger classroom settings, however, personalization isn’t always possible. “There are also limits to how far the university and faculty can go,” explained Dr. Steven Rothman, associate professor at APU. Other innovative teaching methods exist, of course—provided professors are given the means to learn them.

“Very few universities actually train the teachers in teaching,” said Rothman, “but instead assume it all takes place on the job.”

As Kondo explained, APU has “a faculty development program operated in cooperation with the University of Minnesota that provides our faculty opportunities to learn different types of pedagogy, such as flipped classes, small group discussion, and project-based learning.” Flipped classes reverse the traditional approach to learning by moving a student’s first contact with new material outside the classroom.

Photo: The ACCJ Journal


What does the future hold for post-secondary education in Japan? Brender sees three key trends emerging: more focus on volunteerism; an increase in internships; and continuing education, which LUJ has been offering through its Open College in the evening and on Saturdays since 2008.

Rothman also foresees the expansion of continuing education, as well as movement towards online platforms. “Basically, if we look back at the past 10 years in the United States, I think we will see the next 10 years in Japan.”

For these schools, 2018 will bring its own changes. The McGill MBA Japan program will be making more material available online for study before class. “We will also be opening up our offering to the wider community here in Japan by offering executive and business education courses during weekdays,” said O’Neill. LUJ, which until now has offered two-year associate of arts degrees, is considering a move to a four-year program.

The overwhelming desire, Kondo said, is to encourage students to become autonomous learners and positively affect their futures.

Considering the future, Brender echoed the sentiments of the primary and secondary school educators: “We need to look at students as young people with complexities, and we need to deal with those complexities with humaneness, empathy, and understanding, as well as being able to offer sage advice and guidance. These are future citizens who are being molded by us.”

Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© The ACCJ Journal

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

Basically, if we look back at the past 10 years in the United States, I think we will see the next 10 years in Japan

Won't be sending my child to his school.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Nice article but missed one important part, the tuition fees,

6 ( +6 / -0 )

PTA at international schools in Japan is actually voluntary. They also have long holidays, which they don't fill with homework and unmissable club activities.

No-one mentions it, but one reason I think the birthrate is remaining low in Japan is that raising kids involves lots of slog and not much fun. PTA at a typical Japanese school is a fine example of parenting slog, and not being able to take long holidays with your kids, except in short but megaexpensive peak periods, is one example of not much fun. International schools are typically off for summer in mid June. It's way cheaper to leave Japan then than in August.

We can't afford international schools, but I can see their merits.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

My daughter is 1 and we have started saving for her tuition fees already, shudder to think of her dealing with a jjhs.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

tuition at these kinds of schools is something like 200,000yen a month

sorry but no, might as well just move overseas if you want a proper international experience

canadian & american schools offer better education for free so long as they're not located in the middle of huge urban or impoverished areas.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites