As a parent with a child in school, I really think that the poor view people tend to have of Japanese schools is almost entirely unjustified. This is especially true at the lower grade levels - and even at the higher if you take certain things into consideration.
Japanese elementary schools encourage expressions of creativity, individualism, etc - but within the realms where it does not harm others. There is more focus on getting along
rather than getting ahead
. There tends to be a bit more focus on teamwork than just doing it all by yourself. There is emphasis that a child is not alone in the world, and that they will have the support of others in the community... And at the same time, they`ll likely have to deal with unpleasant people in their lives too, so should learn the skills to avoid pointless conflict.
When it comes to higher grades, something that people need to remember is that Japanese compulsory education ends at junior high. High school is not compulsory
This means that students/parents are free to choose the type of high school they attend. You can go to an extremely uptight and strict school, or you can go to a school with art as the focus. As high school is NOT compulsory, the curriculum and style varies an incredible amount. There is no set curriculum or style for somewhere to be an alternative to.
How much pressure a student is under really has to do with personal and parental expectations, not the school system itself. Students (or parents...) will choose a high school and then do an exam to get in - the difficulty of the exam reflects the "difficulty" of the school. The high school I attended had three "programs" - an international program with heavy focus on English and a year spent in Australia, a dance program with connections to pro dancers, and a standard program aiming at university admission. The entrance exams were different depending on the program a student wanted to enter. It was down to choice.
There are extremely strict schools with serious amounts of pressure, but no one HAS to go to one of them. The problem isn`t the school system as much as it is parents who pressure their children to achieve beyond their capabilities. To put it simply, if you are not going to pressure your child there would be no problems as you wouldn`t be forcing them into that environment to begin with.
I have heard of "international schools" in the big cities. I hear that they even teach a lot of the subjects in English too so your child will get a great mix of Japanese and English throughout their education.
I think they are pretty expensive though.
Does anyone out there have any kids in one of these schools or know of someone who does?
True International schools are following the curriculum of another country, in the language of that country, and using textbooks from that country. Think of them as little school outposts from other countries - they are usually designed so that a child could attend one and then move from it to a school in the other country without any hiccups in learning schedule. Whether they are "alternative" or not is down to the country`s curriculum they are using.
This is why you will see lots of "international" kindergartens and after-school programs, but very very few elementary, junior high, and high schools. They need to be licensed as a learning establishment (with teachers licensed) in the country their curriculum is from.
International schools are used mostly by expats who are in Japan at company expense for limited amounts of time. It seems to be pretty rare for anyone in Japan for life or native Japanese to use them... The costs really are prohibitive. To make the comparison, the fees GoNative quoted are pretty standard (sometimes up to double that). The normal fees for a Japanese public elementary school is about 6000yen a month. Less than $500 a year at current exchange rates.
When you get up to high school, the sky is the limit when it comes to fees as there are so many different options.