Founded in 1949 by Japanese educator Tane Matsukata, this small day school in central Tokyo is rich in Japanese tradition, with a very strong language and cultural programme.
Close to the Azabu Juban shopping area in central Tokyo (popular with expats), the campus is in the same location as when the school first opened – the family home of Tane Matsukata. Today, the house is both a building of historical interest as well as the school’s administration block.
Alongside Matsukata House, there are five other buildings: the multi-purpose Ushiba Memorial housing the gym and auditorium; the kindergarten; the primary building for Grades 1 and 2; the upper elementary and middle school building for Grades 3 to 9; and the Yashiro Media Centre, which includes the library. Nishimachi also has a residential outdoor education centre, Camp Rioichiro Arai, in Kazuno in Gunma Prefecture, 150km north-west of Tokyo.
The kindergarten block is purpose-built and feels homely. It includes a discovery play room where children are encouraged to be creative, dress up and use the makerspace and Lego wall. Classrooms are bright with lots of artwork and exhibits to look at and learn from posted around the walls. The kindergarten has its own playground with a sandpit, and children use the library facilities on the main campus.
The red-painted primary school building has curved concrete walls – its design feels very modern and Japanese. We like the fact that there are times tables printed on each step of the staircase so that children can learn them as they walk to class each day.
The largest, yellow building houses the middle school classrooms, as well as the science labs, art and music rooms for the entire school (we especially like the art space for the elementary children, which is full to bursting with everything they could need and feels like a very creative space). On the roof is a basketball hoop and a telescope – a great idea. The blue building has the nurse’s office, gym, multi-purpose hall and STEAM rooms.
Most families live within a 30-minute walk and, as there is no school bus service, most arrive on foot or take public transport. There is no parking on campus and the surrounding area is also a no-parking zone. Nearby subways include Azabu Juban station on the Namboku line (the Toei Oedo line also stops here) and Hiroo station on the Hibiya line.
Since 2019, head of school has been Karen O’Neill, who attended Nisimachi as a child. She went on to Stanford University and worked in the finance sector before switching to education. We hear from parents that she is kind, gentle and welcoming but with a laser-sharp focus. Elementary school principal is Dr Kalpano Rao, who has also been here since 2019.
Families who want their children to join the kindergarten need to submit applications for the following year by the end of October – be aware that there are waiting lists. Applications for Grades 1 to 9 are accepted from November for the following year, on a rolling admissions basis. The good news is that applications aren’t prioritised by submission date but rather ‘student readiness’ for Nishimachi. For all ages, pupils must have the appropriate grade-level proficiency in English and maths, and there is a screening process (in person for the lower years where possible).
Partial scholarships across all grade levels are on offer, with funds raised through the Nishimachi community. They are awarded for one academic year at a time, with renewal subject to the school’s satisfaction with the recipient’s progress. There is also a programme for those who need financial assistance – help is awarded for a particular school year and reviewed on an annual basis.
The school primarily follows an American curriculum, with students very much encouraged to take ownership of their learning. Subjects include art, English, maths, drama, health and wellness, music, PE, science and social studies. Japanese language is taught daily from kindergarten to Grade 5.
Pupils in Grades 2 to 9 sit MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) assessments twice a year in maths and English (scores are above average, maths particularly so), while Grades 3 to 9 take the International Schools’ Assessment (ISA) online test to assess how well they write a story or a reflective piece, as well as an exposition/argument task. All students have access to an electronic device that is provided by the school but can’t be taken home.
Kindergarten and primary both have three classes, with 20 students per class. SEN support is offered for those with a mild learning need, and the head can approve additional tutoring by Nishimachi teachers if a student is struggling. The school will also help find an external specialist if needed and create an individual learning plan. We hear that there is a teacher-led initiative in the pipeline to support those who are gifted. English Language Services (ELS) look at MAP and ISA scores and, if necessary, offer support. There is also a speech and language pathologist on campus three times a week.
Art exhibitions are held throughout the year for both elementary and middle school students. There are also numerous music recitals, chorus performances, drama presentations and a winter concert. Sports day takes place at a nearby stadium for all year groups in May, with parents invited to watch. There is a two-week summer school option for kindergarten to Grade 5 pupils.
After-school activities are on offer from kindergarten upwards (some also take place before school and at weekends). These are organised by TNK (Tomo no Kai, the parents’ association) and taught by parents, staff and external instructors. We love the sound of activities such as kickboxing, abacus, Zenten Aikido (martial arts), taiko (Japanese drums – a favourite), AI and, quirkily, lightsaber to replicate battle scenes in movies.
Field trips from Grade 4 upwards include overnight trips to Gunma (Nishimachi’s sibling school in Kazuno) and a lodge at the ski slopes at Niigata as part of the PE programme. Exchange programmes are in place with elementary and junior high schools in Kurohone and Honmura. There are lots of service opportunities too, including Second Harvest Japan, Room to Read and Hands On Tokyo.
Pupils tell us that they like the small cosy campus, and that the school community feels like a second family. There is a mix of nationalities; over 35 are represented, with 50% holding dual passports.
There is a school counsellor on site, as well as a nurse. Two medical examinations are required: one when pupils join the school and another before the start of Grade 6.
To encourage pupils to bond, the elementary school has movie nights and the middle school holds dances. There is no official uniform (unusual for Japan), but students need to adhere to guidelines as to what to wear.
Students bring in their own lunch, which is eaten in class (there is no cafeteria). They can also order lunch through the TNK and milk through the admin office.
There is a solid, tight-knit parent community – one parent tells us the camaraderie is strong. All parents are automatically part of TNK (Tomo no Kai means ‘association of friends’). One of the main events of the year is the Food Festival, when food stalls line the street outside the school. It begins with drumming by teachers, pupils and parents – quite a sight. There are large fundraising drives through TNK, including the annual gala for parents, and the strong alumni network.
Aiming to expand into a high school by 2026, Nishimachi is looking to source a suitable campus. In the meantime, the buildings on the current campus are being updated, including the original family home turned admin block, which will feature a small museum showcasing the history of the school.