Founded in 1924 with one teacher and six students, Yokohama International School (YIS) was the second authorised international school in the world. Today, it’s one of the leading schools in the city.
The big news at YIS was the move at the beginning of 2022 to a new campus in Honmoku. The architects (who also designed the stadium for the Tokyo Olympics) have made use of natural light as much as possible, as well as materials such as wood to create a modern yet welcoming space. It consists of two low-rise buildings (North and South) connected by The Bridge, below which there is an area with basketball hoops known as The Street.
The North Building houses the cafeteria, library, performing arts centre, art and design rooms and most of the classrooms. The school wanted to make the most of the space by creating shared hubs – even the classrooms have large bi-fold windows that open internally into the corridor to create a natural flow of learning. Sustainability is high on the list, and the new buildings have a solar-panel energy system, green roofs and walls, and a water-recycling system. The real stand-out feature is the Japanese Cultural Centre, which is designed like a Japanese tea room and has a Japanese garden.
The South Building is home to the early learning centre, swimming pool and gymnasium. The early learning centre also has an outdoor play space, with an area specially designed for the school’s much-loved tortoise, Bob. A large sports field runs along the front of both buildings. Other sports facilities include the 25m indoor swimming pool with a viewing balcony and a large gym with two basketball courts.
Yokohama City bus routes connect to local trains that whizz pupils into Tokyo’s Shibuya in under 35 minutes. There is no parking or dropping off at the school – it’s best to park in Honmoku shopping mall next door and walk in.
New Zealander head of school Craig Coutts joined YIS in 2013 after a 12-year stint at UWC South-East Asia in Singapore. He has more than 20 years in education, including in the UK and Indonesia. One of his priorities at YIS is developing the service programme.
Elementary principal Jacqueline Pender joined YIS in 2011. Her previous roles include elementary principal at Bonn International School in Germany and at the International School of Manila in the Philippines, and director of two early childhood centres in Melbourne, Australia.
There are rolling admissions for applicants outside Japan. Those applying to the early learning centre and elementary are admitted regardless of English-language proficiency, provided (if there is little knowledge of English) that there are no additional learning needs. There are limited spaces for Japanese nationals. If both parents are Japanese nationals, they can apply if their child has been educated at a non-Japanese or international school whose language of instruction is English (this needs to be supported by a letter stating why the prospective pupil needs to study in an international school). At least one parent must be able to understand English.
From Grade 5, pupils must be competent in English, the language of instruction. If YIS has any concerns, applicants sit a test and in some cases receive English tutoring as a condition of admission. Learning needs must be flagged and assessed to establish whether the school can offer full support. This takes the form of parent interviews, trial days and diagnostic screenings or assessments.
The elementary application requires school grades for at least one academic year and a recommendation from a current school teacher. No scholarships are offered.
Pupils in elementary (ages 5 to 11) follow the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), which encourages independent thinking, questioning and expressing ideas. There is a PYP exhibition at the end of Grade 5 that is a presentation to the whole school and wider community. Last year’s was connected to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and focused on themes of wellbeing, plastic in the ocean and affordable clean energy.
YIS strongly supports home languages, regarding them as fundamental in the development of English language skills. The school provides the classroom space and helps to arrange home-language teachers, for whom parents pay externally. Current home languages include Chinese, French, German, Spanish and Korean, and the school will consider other family-language options too. In elementary, pupils study either their home language or Japanese (either native or Japanese as an additional language).
The Japanese Culture Programme helps students and the wider community to develop an appreciation of their host country through traditional and modern arts and culture classes, which include Japanese dance, music – koto (a traditional harp-like instrument), singing, taiko drumming – and tea-making.
YIS very much believes in inclusion and caters for pupils who need support with diverse learning needs. The learning support department can provide both psycho-educational and speech and language evaluation, and if requested will arrange for parents to get external assessments. YIS helped establish and belongs to the Japanese division of SENIA, a network of educators, professions and parents who support children with special needs. EAL is available to pupils who are new to English, as well as those who need support to get them to the required level for the IB programme.
The art and design area of the new campus has a workshop, an electric kiln for the ceramics programme and plenty of space for creative design – and the standard is high. There is an elementary choir and a ukulele group; as part of the Japanese Heritage programme, YIS offers Grades 4 to 12 the opportunity to play the koto. YIS has won prizes in key national music awards for pupil performances. The new auditorium also has a black box teaching room where pupils can perform. There are annual elementary, middle and high school productions.
The athletics field and indoor pool on the new campus have raised the level of sports on offer. These include volleyball, cross-country, tennis, soccer, basketball, hockey and baseball.
Elementary school activities are split into themes such as athletics, academics, arts and music. They are offered from kindergarten to Grade 5 and include nature sketching, student council, Lego club, cross-stitch, drone coding, graffiti and cartooning, guitar and traditional Japanese dance. Activities are run by teachers, parents and external instructors (the latter require an additional fee). We love the fact that the school doesn’t offer these on a first-come, first-served basis but as a more balanced approach that looks at gender split, number of participants per activity and ages.
Service is an integral part of YIS and starts in the early learning centre, when children from the local orphanage are invited to come to the school to play. Older pupils might help distribute essentials to the homeless, serve lunch to people in poverty or raise funds to help refugees in Japan.
Expeditions for Grade 4 upwards take place around Japan and range from camping to whitewater rafting.
Parents tell us that the community spirit here is very strong, and the welcoming feeling is tangible the minute you arrive on campus. Different school divisions have dedicated counsellors who provide support through individual as well as group sessions. This truly is an international school, with 54 nationalities. Parents say they love the way the PTSA (which supports not only parents but teachers and pupils too) matches new families with ‘mentor’ families who have children in the same grade or are from the same home country.
There are lots of events to involve the community, from Ikebana - traditional Japanese flower arranging - cooking and hiking to a bingo evening with the children and robotics with families. The Food Fair is the major fundraiser at YIS and has been held for 40 years. It celebrates diversity in the community through food stalls from different nations.
We like the fact that pupils who are involved with AISA (Association of International Schools in Asia) events, whether arts or sport, are asked if their families can provide homestay accommodation to their visiting counterparts. his demonstrates the YIS community in action.
Two time capsules have been buried on the new campus under a sakura tree. They include items from pupils across the school, so that those studying here in the future can see what life was like in 2021.
All food is made fresh on site by Dragon Dining and eaten in the new dining area, which has a spill-out terrace with a shaded pergola. Pupils may also bring in their own lunch.
An excellent, well-rounded and popular school with waiting lists that will probably get even longer now that YIS has settled into its new campus.