There are two million expats in Tokyo, but luckily they’re not all heading to the relatively small number of international schools. Also, don’t forget an umbrella on the school run, it buckets down in the rainy season!
Claustrophobia is a serious worry here as the population density is twice that of London and in addition, the number of people (law abiding as they are) can make for a pressured environment. Basically, it can be an unnerving or a very exciting place to live, the choice is yours. On the other hand, if you head for the hills, you could be on a loch in the Scottish highlands, except for the occasional pagoda and the trees imitating Japanese woodcuts.
Location, location, location
Despite there being a multitude of districts in Tokyo (called wards or ku in Japanese but really more like separate towns), expats tend to live in a small number of areas including; Azuba and Roppongi, Koujimachi, in Chiyoda, west of the Imperial Palace, Hatsudai in Shibuya, Sangenjaya, cheek by jowel with downtown Tokyo, Jiyugaoka in Meguro, the embassy quarter and Yotsuya in Shinjuku in the heart of Tokyo.
When it comes to the school run, Sangenjaya probably scores highest, as it is home to the main campus of the British School in Tokyo as well as the posh Catholic all girls’ school Seisen International School and St Mary’s International School, which, despite its name, is actually a boys only school. Tokyo International School, Nisimachi International School, the International School of the Sacred Heart and the Montessori School of Tokyo draw family house-hunters to Minato, the ku containing Azuba and Roppongi.
The English option
The main problem for parents looking for an English education is the availability of places at the British School in Tokyo, especially in years 1 and 2: it is essential to register as soon as you know you are coming here.
If you are committed to the National Curriculum for England from start to finish, then the British School is the obvious and only option. The school now has a senior campus in Showa and a primary in Shibuya but they have embarked on a truly stunning project (due to open in 2023) to build a tree-covered junior campus, designed by the British architects, Thomas Heatherwick – delay having a baby, this will be the coolest school on the planet.
Probably the best selection for British parents is amongst the pre-schools; there are a good many, and people generally seem happy with the ones they have chosen. By contrast, the British School is the only option for primary-aged children who want to be in the British system.
If you are not wedded to the English curriculum the choice of American, Canadian and International Baccalaureate schools is very good as several have excellent facilities and pupil:staff ratios.
The main choices if you are looking for the IB programmes are Seisen International School for girls (with co-ed kindergarten), St Mary’s International School for boys, K International School, Tokyo International School (up to year 9) and the Hikarigaoka campus of Aoba Japan International School (all co-ed). On the other hand, the Meguro nursery campus of Aoba, only teaches an adapted curriculum up to age 6.
A slightly smaller number of schools offer the American Curriculum, but they include; International School of the Sacred Heart, the American School in Japan (with its Early Learning Centre in central Roppongi) and Nishimachi International School, (up to Grade 9) as well as the Tokyo YMCA International School (stopping at 14). The main ASIJ campus is rather a long way from the centre but it was the school’s conscious decision to go for the luxury of open spaces, good sized buildings and playing fields. Along with most other schools they offer a bus service, so the location is not such a problem.
A Canadian curriculum is taught at both Canadian International School and Columbia International School (the Ontario version at the latter) and there are schools that fall outside these categories, such as: GREGG International (up to age 12), the Montessori School of Tokyo and the New International School (not so new, as it opened in 2003).
For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Tokyo considered by expats'.
Something to be aware of is the phenomenon of so-called ‘international’ schools which have glossy brochures, showing smiling children of different nationalities, when in reality the majority of students are Japanese and there are only a handful from any other country. The English in these schools is less than perfect, and teachers in the secondary schools have commented on the need to give students, coming out of them, extra English tuition.
The Japanese government is aware that there is a growing number of Japanese who would like their children to go to international schools so that they can learn correct English (the English teaching in most Japanese schools can be quite poor) and so the genuine international schools tend to have a policy of only taking Japanese children who have lived abroad for three years and who are comfortable speaking English.
Something to be aware of is that Asian parents have very high expectations of their children, and Japanese parents are no exception. Japanese mothers push their children hard and are very competitive. Some British (or American parents, in particular) may find this very different to what they have been used to.