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Expert School Advice for Mixed Children Living in Japan
While raising a child anywhere is a big job, raising one in Japan can present special challenges. Especially for parents of children with mixed Japanese heritage.
Uchi-soto (which translates to "inside/outside") culture in Japan is a centuries-old societal structure that prioritizes belonging to groups. While Uchi-soto helps to build strong communities and relationships, it can also have the unfortunate effect of making anyone not in a group feel very much like an outsider.
For children who have mixed Japanese heritage (traditionally referred to as “Hāfu,” a term which a growing number of people find derogatory), Uchi-soto culture can be a real obstacle to fitting in at school.
Dariusz Skowronski, an associate professor at Temple University, Japan, with a private counseling practice in Tokyo, spoke with CareFinder about the issues children of mixed heritage face during their school years in Japan, as well as tips for coping.
Studies show that the vast majority of children with mixed Japanese heritage will face some form of discrimination or bullying, according to Dariusz. Whether it’s overt or subtle (even some teachers are guilty, he says), parents should anticipate dealing with it.
We discussed two schooling options parents might consider - international and public - and broke down the pros and cons of each.
Dariusz says that he recommends international schools whenever possible. Though the number of mixed heritage children in Japan grows every year (according to some statistics, 1 of every 49 babies born in Japan today has one non-Japanese parent), the reality is many will find it difficult to truly fit into the public school environment simply because of their heritage.
Consider that some public schools, until recently, did not allow students to dye their hair and required all students to have black hair (ironically, requiring some to dye their hair black). Conformity is a very important mandate in Japanese culture; children with mixed backgrounds naturally stand out.
At an international school, the student body is inherently diverse. Children of many different races, ethnicities, nationalities and religions regularly interact. Of course, no school is without bullying and cliques but a child of mixed heritage is not at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to fitting in.
International schools do have drawbacks, however. In addition to high tuition prices, they also insulate children from authentic Japanese culture. For parents raising children with Japanese heritage in Japan, it is often very important to have a strong connection to the country. For parents concerned with balancing an international education with a connection to cultural roots, there are many opportunities to experience and learn about Japan as a whole family. CareFinder wrote about several, including cooking classes, onsen and tea ceremonies.
As mentioned, international schools can be very expensive and also lack a strong connection to Japanese culture. For parents who cannot afford or simply choose not to send their children to international schools, Japanese public schools are another option.
The Japanese education system consistently performs well in global math, science and reading rankings and boasts a very high graduation rate. And while public schools elsewhere, such as in the United States, are funded primarily through property taxes (which means schools in wealthier areas have greater access to resources than those in less affluent ones), the Japanese government ensures all schools are on equal footing. Though the perception of public schools in many countries is a relatively negative one, the caliber of education available at public schools in Japan is one parents can largely feel good about.
That being said, they are very homogenous learning environments. Logically, the vast majority of students and educators at public schools in Japan are Japanese. And as Uchi Soto culture would indicate, anyone who is not Japanese in the strictest sense is a de facto outsider.
Dariusz suggests one way to circumvent being ostracized is to enroll children of mixed heritage into some form of group sport or club as soon as possible. While after-school activities and hobbies are a great recommendation for all children, for these children especially they can help to serve as insulators from discrimination. Once a child is part of a team or club, they are less likely to be seen as an outsider and more likely to be seen as a player on the yakyu squad or the violinist in the school’s orchestra.
Whichever route parents of mixed heritage children choose to go, there is always the possibility that their children will face difficulties growing up in Japan. The good news is there are tips for addressing specific challenges and professionals like Dariusz available to help families through adversity.