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Legal and Financial Status for International Schools in Japan

Author: Tim Boyle, Issue: June 2002, Topic: Education

Tsukuba International School finishes out its 10th year of operation this month. While some of the problems facing the school are due to the unique situation found here in Tsukuba, all international schools in Japan face similar problems with respect to legal and financial status, and these structural problems have been a primary reason for the difficulties TIS has faced in becoming recognized and in building up a stable situation within which to operate. The following article is an edited version of a paper prepared by the Nishimachi International School in Tokyo as part of an effort by the Japan Council of International Schools to work towards a solution for all of its members. Implementation of these recommendations would greatly facilitate the work of TIS in providing the option of a quality English-language-based education for international children in Tsukuba.


The School Education Law of Japan (Gakko Kyoikuho) that was passed in 1947 has only 3 categories: Regular Japanese schools recognized by the Ministry of Education, specialized trade schools, and everything else lumped together as "miscellaneous schools" (referred to as "Article 83"). Most international schools are categorized as "miscellaneous schools" (the exceptions mostly being schools directly attached to a private Japanese school that has its own "gakko hojin" status). Schools that typically fall into this category include cooking, sewing, and driving schools. It is inappropriate, to say the least, for schools in Japan aspiring to provide a core academic curriculum for transnational leaders of the 21st Century to be relegated to such a status. Likewise, from a purely practical point of view, there are several distinct disadvantages inherent in the "miscellaneous schools" category that actually compromise the quality and quantity of resources available in Japan for international education.


Non-recognition of Credentials: Many international schools are provided accreditation by foreign accrediting organizations. For example, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) grants its internationally recognized accreditation to several international schools in Japan. WASC is a private non-profit organization, but it has the approval and recognition of the United States Department of Education. Schools that undergo this accreditation follow stringent guidelines with accreditation visitations. There are literally hundreds of nations throughout the world that recognize WASC accreditation. Japan, however, does not provide similar recognition and continues to place international schools, in spite of international accreditation, into the Article 83 category.
Limited Access to Advanced Education: International School students are treated differently from mainstream Japanese students. For example, international school students are not allowed to take the entrance examination of the public high schools nor can they take the recently instituted examination for middle school graduation equivalency until they are sixteen years old. Japanese students may take the examination at fifteen years of age. This requirement forces international middle school students to wait from six months to one year to take the exam, putting their entire academic career at risk should they fail to pass the test. Therefore, most students opt not to take the exam at all and to continue their education at either another international school in Japan or at a boarding school abroad. Ultimately, most of these students attend universities abroad and often continue to live abroad. This is a significant "brain drain" for Japan since many of these bright and potentially bilingual students end up not even coming back to Japan.
Cost Discrimination: Since international schools are classified as miscellaneous schools, they receive only the most minimal subsidies. (TIS still receives none at all.) Compared with international standards, tax benefits for donations are highly restricted. Public resources, such as normal private school subsidies and unused school buildings, are generally not available to international schools. As a result, their primary source of income is inevitably high tuition. High tuition precludes many less affluent but qualified students from attending international schools even where the child's educational needs are obvious. In addition, it is a burden for many large companies - not to mention independent business and service industry professionals - to pay this high tuition. This could have a direct impact on future foreign investment in Japan. If education expenses are too high, companies will simply opt to locate elsewhere.
The parents of international school children - foreigners and internationally minded Japanese alike - are all taxpayers, often paying large tax bills. The tax money that the government collects helps to support the general educational system. Unfortunately, international school taxpayers cannot enjoy any of the normally expected benefits related to education. In many cases, attending a Japanese school is not an option for these foreigners or even international Japanese who have grown up in another system.


There are several current issues that exist because of the ongoing placement of international schools in the Article 83 category. They are:
Inadequate and Unused Capacity: A pressing issue in the Tokyo/Yokohama area today is the general availability of international schooling. Nearly all of the schools are filled to capacity. One realistic and economical way to expand the capacity of international schools would be to allow them to rent or purchase government properties at reasonable rates. However, the current legal status of these schools impedes the established process for recycling such facilities. Enrollment in international schools in Japan has increased from 6,983 students in 1986 to 9,151 students in the year 2000. In Tokyo, the enrollment has increased from 4,572 students in 1986 to 5,698 students in the year 2000. If providing expanded facilities at reasonable prices on a nondiscriminatory basis could reduce tuition, these figures would increase even more.
Excessive Regulations: It may be argued that international schools could register as full-fledged Japanese educational institutions. However, these schools are concerned about submitting to a system of excessive regulation that seems to be at war with the best traditions of a private education internationally. For example, the Japanese language arts (Kokugo) curriculum demands a certain amount of grueling work to be covered each year through the study of Japanese character reading and writing. This expectation is unrealistic for many international students who must also study advanced curricula required for further schooling in their home countries. "One size fits all" does not work for students from such wide a variety of backgrounds and educational goals.
Teacher licensing is another issue. In Japan, under current regulations, teacher licensing is permitted only through Japanese universities. Since international schools employ teachers from around the world, this restriction would make it impossible for these teachers to be qualified.
International schools with international teachers, administrators, and boards need a very special and essentially deregulated legal status. Many Japanese educators say that they would like to learn from the experience of international schools in, for example, bilingual education. However, bilingual programs, as they are taught in international schools, would simply not be permitted under the Japanese system. Yet, the fact remains that many Japanese educators visit international schools each year to learn new approaches to instruction and to curriculum development because these programs can and do work. Deregulated international schools could provide a working model for innovation among emerging Japanese nonprofit organizations and educational institutions. They can help Japan envision the future and create a new global standard for school systems worldwide.
The Barrier of High Tuition: Many children who would benefit from an International education are now excluded because of high tuition. Since the primary source of income in international schools is tuition rather than the standard private school subsidies or tax-advantaged gifts, tuition rates tend to be very high. These high rates can exclude many prospective students whose parents cannot afford to pay the tuition. (As high as TIS tuition is, almost all other international schools in Japan have tuition rates at least twice as high as TIS.) The schools face the possibility of having a student body comprised only of students from affluent families whose companies or embassies can afford the high tuition. The lack of access to recycled facilities and standard tax advantages for donations makes it very difficult for international schools to provide a comprehensive scholarship program for students from developing countries or those who have to pay for their children's tuition from their own income.
Lack of Reciprocity: Japanese children of both business and diplomatic families have effective access to both the public and private school systems in the United States and most other countries because of the traditional openness of those systems to both expatriates and immigrants. This is especially true in the United States. Moreover, Japanese educational institutions are not only free to, but actually have opened many tax advantaged educational institutions in the United States as private, nonprofit organizations both exempt from taxation and able to receive tax-free donations. These donations may be used not only for the construction of buildings, but also for the educational program in general. The international schools simply seek comparable treatment and benefits in Japan.
The Never-Never Land of Article 83: So long as international schools are placed into the miscellaneous school category, the problem of facilities, financial relief, and student matriculation to Japanese schools will continue to be a problem. The current situation is not in the best interest of international schools nor is it in the interest of Japan. If Japan desires to "internationalize" itself, then it would be beneficial to provide a secure legal status to the international schools. In turn, the international schools could grow and prosper and provide the needed educational infrastructure for foreign embassies, companies, and individuals that wish to remain and contribute to the future of Japan.


We have four concrete proposals in order to resolve the existing problems with the legal status of international schools:
Mutual recognition arrangements between the Ministry of Education and the foreign accrediting agencies, such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and the European Council of International Schools (ECIS), regarding the qualification of schools and their graduates.
Revision of tax laws and their interpretation so that international schools can enjoy tax deductible donations such as those available to Specific Public Organizations (Tokutei Koeki Zoshin Hojin) from individuals as wells as corporations. This could be done by using existing foundations such as the Foundation for Private Schools, by creating a special new foundation, or by approving the schools or their supporting foundations as Specific Public Organizations.
Making unused facilities available on a nondiscriminatory basis to international schools that want to use surplus public school campuses in order to expand their enrollment capacity and reduce costs.
Legal recognition of international schools, not as miscellaneous schools, but as a new deregulated category with a special designation in the School Education Law of Japan is the best long-term solution. This could ultimately resolve the legal and financial problems that have been the source of so much difficulty for more than fifty years.


It is clear that the legalization of international schools in Japan would benefit everyone. Japan is now committing itself to a new level of internationalization, reform, and deregulation. This commitment to change includes an effort to increase innovation, human resource development, and foreign participation in the domestic economy. Japan's international schools are key infrastructure not only for international companies, embassies, and foreign individuals in Japan but also a source of growth, innovation, and development for the entire Japanese economy as well as its educational system. The international schools in Japan meet high academic standards, and Japan should be encouraged to take measures to ensure the well-being of these national and international assets. By taking measures to provide an appropriate legal status for the international schools, Japan can send a clear message that it is ready in the 21st century to nurture a new generation of international citizens trained and ready to take up the torch carried by many others who struggled selflessly in the past century to create true international understanding through education.

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