TOKYO - International pre-school operators that also offer after-school day care services are becoming increasingly popular in Japan, with parents wanting their children to pick up English at a young age, and spurred by a dire crunch in nursery school places.
Preschool Navi, a leading online resource of international pre-schools in Japan, estimates about 1,200 centres nationwide, double the figure in 2014.
And this is set to grow, said Ms Khoo Kiewai of the Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro) that helps foreign businesses enter the Japan market. She has observed a "noticeable increase" in the number of inquiries from businesses in recent years.
Neither Jetro nor the government tracks the number of international pre-schools, as many operate as private businesses outside the more strictly regulated public education system.
But many schools are now running at full capacity, including Singapore's EtonHouse, which opened a centre in Tokyo's Roppongi district in 2010 that now has an enrolment of 85 pupils.
Mr Tan Anli, operational director for EtonHouse Tokyo, told The Straits Times that there are plans to launch three more schools over the next five years,
The school's hands-on pedagogy, which focuses on building creativity and confidence among children, has also been gaining traction. This year, it began partnering the T-Site retail complex in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, to run an off-site early childhood sensory programme that involves immersing young children in areas such as music and art.
"We won't change our philosophy to match the market, but we want to change the market perspective of early childhood education," Mr Tan said.
As an example, EtonHouse Tokyo has tapped into games, such as Pokemon Go and Angry Birds, as the basis to not only teach pupils English, but also the concept of categorisation and the physics of flight trajectories.
Besides English and Japanese, the school also offers Mandarin classes as an elective, which means some children as young as five are able to converse in three languages.
All this appeals to the growing number of relatively well-heeled Japanese families who are enrolling their children at EtonHouse.
Among them is Mrs Eiko Yamaguchi, 37, whose children Gen, aged six, and Mio, aged three, attend the pre-school. She is unfazed by school fees of more than 2 million yen (S$23,960) a year per child, and told The Straits Times that the focus on English will be a "window to the world" for her young children.
She added that she preferred that her children learn how to think out of the box, as opposed to the "traditional rigid forms of education centred on etiquette" in many public schools.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made a pledge during his recent successful election campaign of "free early childhood education" for all children aged three to five by 2020, as part of a suite of new social security measures to invest in the next generation, and to lift the burden of childcare expenses on parents.
In 2016 there were 3.07 million children in Japan aged between three and five.
But Tokyo later clarified it did not intend to include pupils enrolled in privately-run preschools such as international schools.
The ensuing uproar forced the central government to backtrack, and it is now reportedly mulling subsidies of up to 25,700 yen a month - the average fee at a public pre-school - for a child attending these schools.
Many public pre-schools today also provide nursery services as childcare is an increasingly touchy issue in Japan, where the government wants young mothers to return to the workplace but is unable to provide enough nursery slots for their children.
Last year, an anonymous blog post that read "Nihon Shine!" (Die, Japan!) by an irate mother whose child was unable to secure a place in a daycare facility sparked a Parliament debate. Worsening the problem are the low wages earned by nursery teachers, and in October entrepreneur Takafumi Horie sparked a firestorm when he tweeted: "It's a job anyone can do."
While the government had set a target of accommodating all children on waitlists at "authorised" day care facilities by March 2018, it has had to push back this goal by three years to March 2021.
Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare figures show that as of this April (2017), the number of children waiting for a place in a government-run childcare facility had grown by 10.8 per cent over April last year to 26,081.
What this means is there is a sizeable market for global pre-school operators, amid what Preschool Navi describes as "a growing interest in English language education".
"Many parents are considering letting their children study abroad as early as in junior high, and with this comes the need to ensure children are 'less allergic' to English with early exposure," said a Preschool Navi spokesman.
While global pre-schools are much more expensive, he said that the demand has been fueled by smaller household sizes that mean "parents are willing to spend more on each child".
One of the latest entrants into the Tokyo market is Rise Global, an Irish pre-school educator which has over 150 centres in 15 countries.
It opened its first school in Japan last year, in the upmarket Daikanyama neighbourhood off Shibuya in Tokyo.
Chief financial officer Garrett Power, who is based out of Singapore to drive the school's expansion in Asia, sees huge potential as Japan opens up.
"It is very important to knock down barriers and help children build up their confidence from young," he said, observing that while many locals can speak English, they hesitate to do so as they "fear using the wrong word or saying the wrong thing".