When we first knew we’d be moving to Japan, we immediately decided to enroll our son in a traditional Japanese elementary school, called a yochien. We hoped he – along with us – would become fully immersed in the culture, would learn the language, and would soak up as much of this overseas opportunity as we possibly could.
Much like Scarlett O’Hara, our yochien experience has been made much easier through the kindness of strangers. We did absolutely no research on local yochiens – instead choosing the same one a friend sent her children to attend. A Japanese volunteer helped me translate the multiple booklets and applications I needed to fill out to secure his spot in the 9 AM-1:30 PM child class offered for two-year-olds. The school’s staff has been incredibly patient and kind with my limited Japanese (I stop by the front office to buy an obento lunchbox for him every single day, even though I’m 99% sure you’re supposed to buy them weekly or monthly and no one has had the heart to tell me yet).
His sensei – both of them – greet us every morning and afternoon, and give all the parents a ten-minute update (in Japanese) at the end of each day about how the students did (as me and my fellow Americans nod along and try to guess what’s happening in our limited Japanese. Did they hop like bunnies? Crawl like bears? We’re getting pretty good at guessing the sensei’s pantomime of the daily activities.) After each session, they almost always have a sweet anecdote (in their limited English!) for me on how my son did that day.
And the other parents – bless them all – will either translate the entire Japanese update from the sensei, or at the very least, tell us the important highlights we missed. Bring swim diapers next class for pool playtime! Bring a plastic tray so they can make a jellyfish craft!
After we successfully enrolled our son, the true hard part came. I diligently braved the Hello Kitty store to get my son a matching set of something ridiculously Japanese (settling on the full set of Shinkaizoku supplies – indoor shoes and table mats and bento box and silverware and chopsticks and water cup and water bottle and cloths and napkins and towels – and three different bags to carry it all: shoe bag and cup bag and bento bag), which we then had to meticulously label with his name. In Japanese. On each and every thing – down to each individual chopstick.
By the time we arrived for our first day, we were ready and excited. I LOVE how they ease the children into the classes. For the first couple weeks, days were shortened to 11 AM, and each of the moms stayed the entire time to get the kids comfortable going to class, familiar with the yochien and the routine.
We arrived to the school, took off our outdoor shoes & slipped into our indoor ones, and found our designated spot where my son was expected, each day from now on, to hang up his own backpack and water bottle.
Then the kids were off to play! About 15 minutes in, my son had gotten a pretty good lay of the land… and decided he was ‘ready go,’ helpfully grabbing all of his belongings as he made his way back over to me and, not uncoincidentally, the door.
But after some convincing and cajoling, he was ready to rejoin the class in learning important first day skills like: how to set up your water cup each day and hang your cup bag on the table.
After a few more classes, he was taking off his outdoor shoes and trading them for his indoor ones like a
Japanese kid pro.
And after a few more days, it was time for this kid to strike out on his own. A few tears from him, a few tears from me, and it was 1:30 PM before I knew it and time to come pick him back up!
Now, he absolutely loves going. He’s made friends, he’s starting to learn Japanese (so far, he’s got down sushi, boshi (hat), basu (bus), Anpanman (the most famous Japanese character ever), and wani (alligator) – not sure where that one came from – down), and best of all, he’ll have such special memories of our time here in Japan when it’s time for us to go. He’s even started to bow when saying ‘Sayonara’ at the end of the day – it makes my heart so happy!
If you’re considering enrolling your child in a traditional yochien, I’d recommend hiring a yochien consultant or taking your Japanese friends out for a nice meal in thanks for all the translating they’ll be doing for you. We found our yochien through friends, but there are many, many local schools to choose from so finding one that’s close – and convenient enough for your child to walk home from – is essential. Starting our son at just over two years old has proved to be the perfect age for the transition from English to Japanese – he hasn’t had any issues with a language barrier and is beginning to soak up both.