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What your child should know before entering Japanese elementary school


Starting first grade is one of the most exciting transition periods in a child’s life. Whether they attended daycare or preschool in Japan or abroad, or stayed at home with family, entering the elementary school system will ensure a springtime full of changes.

Image: iStock: yamasa

What kind of changes, you might be wondering? Japanese children surveyed noted that the biggest differences between daycare or preschool and elementary school were the set time for lessons, the limited free time for play and rules on when to go to the bathroom or drink water and the amount of independence required of you. Compared to the expectations of schools elsewhere, this last point is particularly salient to the Japanese context. Indeed, in the last year of preschool (nen-cho gumi), teachers can be especially demanding on the five-six-year-old students in order to prepare them to be much more responsible for themselves the following year. 

Having gone through a completely different North American school system myself, I was curious about these expectations for my little one, as perhaps you are as well after clicking on this article. So, after much reading and consulting senpai mamas, I narrowed the skills expected of the incoming first graders into three categories: academic, lifestyle routine and communication. I hope this eases some parent anxiety, as it has done for me.

Academic Skills

This is the first category, but it is also perhaps the most contentious. Ostensibly elementary school will teach the very skills I am going to list below. But, there are sometimes unsaid expectations going in.

Reading and Writing

One of those things is being able to read hiragana (and maybe katakana) and being able to write one’s name in hiragana. Yes, they will teach this in school. But, realistically, it is expected going in. At preschool, for example, although it is not always taught in class, many children exchange letters written in their own hand by ages four or five. Where did they learn then? Either at home or at juku (cram school) where the responsibility falls to parents to either contribute time or money to boost their children’s writing skills before entering elementary school.


Similarly, but even more surprising to parents, is that it’s best to have a head start not only with counting but also with a little addition and subtraction. Maybe you’ve seen that the youji (young child) self-study books by companies like Gakken (4歳 たしざん 学研の幼児ワーク) and Kumon (はじめてのたしざん かず・けいさん 4) start teaching addition in books aimed at four-year-olds. As for counting, most books aimed at six-year-olds claim to teach proficiency up until 100 (6歳 かず 学研の幼児ワーク).

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© Savvy Tokyo

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It's not what the child needs to know - they're adaptable and surrounded by peers. It's what the parent needs to know. And one thing a parent needs to know is that MUCH time will be required.

I'm self-employed so was able to find the time required, but not everyone has such leeway.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

...oh, and let's not get started on those parents who try to fond off their time requirements to others. It is never-ending.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

It's not what the child needs to know... It's what the parent needs to know. 

I got exactly the same impression from reading the article, modifying the article's headline would do a lot to clarify it.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

It looks like work to learn again before a new stage in life, indeed for a parent not the child.

When entering primary school not in Japan, I knew only how to count and write only my name. No need to make something big out of thin air.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

A little late or early. The school year has already started. The new school year does not start until next April.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

It's what the parent needs to know. And one thing a parent needs to know is that MUCH time will be required.

That's certainly the most important thing for non-Japanese parents. Parenting in Japan is involved parenting. This might not be an issue if Japanese companies did "work-life balance", but most of them don't. So you have a school that wants you there frequently to be involved/help, and a workplace that wants you there all the time and sees time off as slacking and imposing on coworkers.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

"The new school year does not start until next April."

Well-spotted, and duly upvoted. There are too many Americacentric filler articles that have no relevance to Japan...

2 ( +4 / -2 )

This is a Japanese article and knowing the info is still useful to those parents with children starting elementary school next April.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

It seems to differ quite a lot to what I went through in childhood. At least we had still one. There weren't any cram schools, neither for pre-schoolers nor later. Everything was excellently taught at home and at school. Also it didn't play a role if the fresh first graders could read and count already or not. But everyone could improve lacking knowledge quickly and finally everyone has become a greatly educated person when having graduated from school. Instead of stealing one or two years of childhood and forcing the kids into cram schools also afterwards, there should be applied massive improvements to schools and the education system. Isn't that common sense or easy to understand, that if cram schools are widely used or needed then something is severely wrong at schools or kids' homes?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I definitely agree that children can adapt quickly. It's what the PARENTS need to know. I can speak from experience from my childhood and as a parent, 3 times. From my childhood, I moved many times because my dad got promotions with transfers. Each time, I had to adapt to a new school. No real problems and I loved school. I still keep in touch with many friends.

As a parent, that involves lots of research and reccommendations from locals. Both my wife and I have check school websites and have gone to school information sessions. Neighboring friends have also given us good advice with local schools.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Chico3, that must have been difficult. Cliques are a thing - in America too . I went from the south-westernmost US city to the north-easternmost state for college, and adaptation to that culture - even within the US! - was huge. But I equate culture shock to chicken pox (having thereafter lived in multiple countries): you get it once, and then you don't get it again.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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