Thursday, April 8, 2004

NARASHINO, Japan — Most Japanese parents take it for granted that their children will attend school, but Yoshiko Kubo and her two daughters decided to have the “freedom not to go to school” — an idea Mrs. Kubo picked up in the United States.

In a country where public schools dominate, educating a child at home is beyond most people’s imaginations. But Mrs. Kubo, who has home-schooled her children for 10 years, says home-based education has enriched their life.

“We enjoy every minute of it. We enjoy everything in home school,” she said. “Our life is filled with small excitements that have been accumulated day by day. We make small change and small progress, but never a step back. We always move forward.”

Mrs. Kubo, a graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle, heard about “the freedom not to go to school” from an American friend a year before her eldest daughter, Asuka, was to enter kindergarten. That freedom captured her interest.

She found little information in Japan about home-schooling, so she relied on acquaintances in the United States but remained skeptical.

Then, one small incident made Mrs. Kubo realize that she was developing an unhealthy reliance on the school system. One day when she and Asuka were trying to cross the street, she thought Asuka was careless and scolded the child.

“Didn’t you learn at kindergarten how to cross the street?” she asked her daughter. Then, she felt embarrassed about blaming the kindergarten for something that is a parent’s responsibility. She began to think seriously about the need to spend more time with her children.

Mrs. Kubo, who is not a fundamentalist Christian, listened again to her friends’ advice about home school. Now her two daughters — Asuka, 15, and Sakura, 13 — are home-schooled. They spend their time reading books, sewing, using computers, doing arithmetic, studying science and other subjects, and doing family chores. They also visit places such as libraries, swimming pools and museums.

Mrs. Kubo said home school gives her opportunities to see new dramas played out every day by her daughters. “I didn’t expect to actually see such evolution of humans in front of me, how they gain wisdom and skills for their survival,” she said.

The Japanese education system emphasizes accumulating knowledge and values memorization, but “home-schooled children seem to have more wisdom,” she said. “They know how to apply their knowledge.”

In a society where home school is nearly unimaginable, many of its potential shortcomings are frequently pointed out — especially the issue of how home-schooled children become socialized, Mrs. Kubo said.

“Socialization is an issue not only for home-schooled children but for all children. Neither going to school nor attending home school makes a child socialized,” she said.

She contends, however, that home-schooled children have more opportunities to interact with children of different ages and adults than do their counterparts at school.

Mrs. Kubo said Japan has too little information about educational options, despite public attention to long-standing problems of truancy, dropouts, bullying and class disruption — all apparently getting worse.

Many parents and teachers have difficulty dealing with such problems, but Mrs. Kubo attributes them to a lack of communication between children and parents.

She said home-schooling gave her opportunities to consider the realms of education, and whether it is important to get into a “good” university.

Looking back on what she studied from kindergarten through university, she wondered whether it has been useful in her life. When children are forced to learn subjects in which they are not interested or do not excel, they tend to develop inferiority complexes, she says.

Confident as she sounds, the Kubo family had to overcome big obstacles at the beginning. She said she had a six-month battle with her mother, who adamantly opposed home-schooling and felt ashamed that her granddaughters would lack an “academic background.”

“Every day, we had stormy arguments in front of my two daughters, so everyone in my family was so stressed and the house was an awful mess,” she recalls.

Home school is endorsed by a small but growing number of parents, educators, politicians and business leaders, said Kozo Hino, deputy director of the Homeschool Support Association of Japan, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization established in 2000.

Although the number of home-schoolers in Japan is difficult to count, it is increasing to around 5,000, Mr. Hino estimates. The Internet, especially, makes study at home easier, he added. The reasons parents choose home school for their children vary from religious beliefs to illness, truancy or just an interest in home-schooling.

How does the Japanese government see home-schooling?

It is “clearly an evasion of the law, because parents have a duty” to send their children to school, said an official at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

But the official cited exceptions, such as a child who has been bullied at school and refuses to return. As long as the children are regarded as receiving an education at an alternative school, they can graduate, he said.

Mr. Hino said government officials have various opinions about home-schooling. He rarely has heard that home-schooled children are unable to graduate, he said.

Mrs. Kubo said she never told her daughters not to go to school. Rather, she suggests they do so from time to time to get different perspectives and information. Her daughters occasionally join in extracurricular activities and events at school, and at times the family has volunteered to help with school projects.

Still, her daughters prefer home school because it allows them more freedom, she said.

“Home school is nothing new at all,” Mrs. Kubo said flatly. “Parents educate their child at home since early times, don’t they?”

She visited the United States again in February to learn about educating physically and mentally handicapped children in a home-school setting, and to gather material for a book.

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