My family is moving back to Japan after half a dozen years in Germany. What happens next? Well, for one thing, my son will become a “returnee.”
He may have to grapple with difficult questions. “What does it mean to be Japanese?” “Do I want to meet those criteria?” “Do I have to meet them?” “Do I have a choice?”
As a parent, I can help by choosing a good school. I’ve noticed that some (usually private) junior high schools offer a “returnee” pathway on their entrance exams. For example, some school websites say that applicants must not only score high on an exam in English, but also take the “ordinary” exam. That’s the one given in Japanese to local applicants, the one that students spend grueling hours in cram schools to pass. In general, returnees compete among themselves for a small number of seats that are set aside for them.
Now, kids who live abroad and go to Japanese schools during the school week can maintain a high level of Japanese ability, but it’s hard. It’s even harder for children who attend schools where classes are taught in the local language. They can make up for their lack of Japanese by going to “special Japanese school” once a week. But that adds another three hours or so outside regular school hours, and comes with its own “special homework.”
But even for returnees who got plenty of Japanese-language exposure overseas, maintaining good Japanese and passing an entrance exam are two different animals. I suspect that the successful applicant is the one whose family moves back months before the test so that he or she can prepare for it by attending a cram school. Well, I may regret it, but we’re not going to do that. My son has a certain skill set from working hard as a student in Germany. It seems to me that it would be great if schools could find new ways to recognize that returnees have valuable skills, reach out to them and help them adapt to Japan’s educational environment.
Instead, the ones I’ve looked at require returnees to sit for ordinary entrance exams, making them focus on their shortcomings, namely, their lack of crammed knowledge. Rather than go along with that, we’ll just have to look for another returnee pathway. One that my son can pass through.
Not having to cram means that he’ll have time to ponder those other tantalizing questions. “Am I Japanese?” “Do I meet the criteria?” “Do I have a choice”? Hmm … sounds like the seeds of an interesting essay he could submit as part of an entrance evaluation. So, which schools are interested in those, I wonder? (Tony Laszlo)