Opinion / Survey / Research


22 years since its opening – A free school in the mountain where everything begins with children’s autonomy
Part 2: The self-determination and individuality of graduates, which has opened up their future

Author: Editorial Office

Issue Date: 2014.08.12

Editorial Office

Children are the bearers of the future – What and how should they learn?

How should schools play their significant roles?

“Future” is not about creating imaginations or dreaming about something.

We visited a pioneering school of the future that is already functioning as such.




Part 2: The self-determination and individuality of graduates, which has opened up their future



Although the weekly timetable of the Kinokuni Children’s Village Elementary School (hereafter, "Kinokuni ") includes 14 hours of class lessons, referred to as a "project" for experience learning, the school is still accredited by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). In Part 1 of this report, we described the current situations at Kinokuni, which has commenced its 22nd year of operations.


In Part 2, we will report mainly on our interview with Hori-san, the Kinokuni school principal, about his view on the educational challenges we face today and his perspectives. We will also focus on how Kinokuni graduates have done for themselves after leaving the school.

The spirit of A. S. Neill and J. Dewey in Kinokuni's educational philosophy

Hori-san founded Kinokuni based on his wish to build a school like Summerhill School (hereafter, "Summerhill"), which is said to be the freest school in the world. Kinokuni’s unique educational policies include no homework, no exams, and no borders between school grades, following the Summerhill’s example. A. S. Neill, the English educator who established Summerhill, thoroughly accepted for children to have the freedom to live their own way, or their "self-determination." Neill valued self-determination, because he wished for children to respect individuality and acquire an attitude to think on their own, without depending on the power of authority. Hori-san actually met Neill and visited Summerhill many times, even after Neill's death, in order to question how schools should fundamentally function.


Another great influence on Kinokuni's educational policy was the philosophy of J. Dewey. Dewey was an American philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century, who insisted on the educational philosophy that is based on pragmatism. Specifically, he referred to children's involvement in the most basic activities of clothing, food, and housing using their full abilities as "active occupations." It is said that active occupations are not automatic tasks, and they have to be voluntary intellectual inquiries. Children have to see the value in the inquiry itself, and should not use it as a means to achieve other purposes.


Kinokuni implements non-conventional educational policies that integrate Dewey's experience learning theory with Neill's ideas on education.

What is needed in today's education is the joy for children to think on their own

In October 1984, Hori-san, along with other five members, launched the "Team for the Establishment of New Schools." In the following year, they founded Kinokuni Children's Village House. The first education activities at Kinokuni were the overnight trainings held at this village house. We asked Hori-san about his thoughts, as Kinokuni's principal, on the opening of the school.


Hori-san: I always felt that there was something missing in Japanese school education. What schools were missing was to pay careful attention to the students’ joy of thinking on their own. To put it extremely, I felt that conventional school education only confirmed, through tests, whether students had memorized what their teachers had taught them. So, I wished to create a school where children could come up with questions on their own, then think through and investigate the answers, acquiring knowledge through making mistakes. I was directly influenced by Neill, who established Summerhill School, the freest school in the world, and I wished to establish a similar school in Japan. I wanted to focus on experience learning because people theoretically learn through repeating experimental actions, in what Dewey calls "learning by doing." I shaped Kinokuni as a fun school by combining the ideas of Neill and Dewey. As it would be difficult to spread my message through a non-approved system, I wanted to get official approval for my school.


Hori-san wished to get approval from MEXT, not because he underestimated the so-called non-approved "free school," but because he felt that he could spread the word about this different type of education and schools once he had approval from the national authority.

Greater culture shock in Japan

People always get extremely positive impression of Kinokuni children: "Everyone seems to enjoy school life, and they have autonomy, unique character, and concrete knowledge and skills to live their life." However, there are also negative elements, one of which is that students are afraid that they will not be able to apply these unconventional rules and ideas once they leave Kinokuni. Then, how do graduates of Kinokuni fare as adults in society? To investigate this, we interviewed two Kinokuni graduates.


The first graduate we spoke to is Ms. Megumi Takahara (hereafter, "Takahara-san"). She is a volunteer manager at the NPO "Second Harvest Japan." This NPO is the first food bank organization in Japan: They take foods that are still safe to consume but that are being disposed of for various reasons from food-related companies or individuals, free of charge, and then, again free of charge, deliver those foods to needy persons or welfare institutions. Takahara-san's duties include the annual recruitment of 5,000 volunteers for delivery, packaging, and soup-runs, as well as communication and coordination with volunteers, and daily operations. After spending from the third to the ninth grade at Kinokuni, she continued her study at Kinokuni Kokusai Kousen High School.


Takahara-san: After graduating from Kinokuni Kokusai Kousen, I studied at York University in Toronto, Canada, in order to imbibe values different from those in Japan. For a person like me, who enjoys understanding new values, this was an excellent environment, where each classmate was of a different nationality. Thanks to this experience, I learned to understand the perspectives of different people. After graduating from university, I joined a company in Japan. However, when I talked with those who had received education in Japan, I experienced a greater culture shock here than I had got when I went abroad (laugh).


Interviewer: What culture shock did you get in the Japanese company?


Takahara-san: First, I was shocked by their hierarchical relationships. There were almost no such relationships at Kinokuni or York University. Also, in this Japanese company, I did not have many opportunities to voice my opinions about anything. At university, I had studied cultural anthropology, and I found working at a Japanese corporation to be like when cultural anthropologists learn about and accept the culture in different countries (laugh). It was an interesting experience, but then I got the opportunity to join Second Harvest Japan.


Interviewer: How is working at Second Harvest Japan?


Takahara-san: It suits me, in the sense that there are almost no hierarchical relationships, and each performs what they have planned on their own.


Interviewer: Are you able to apply what you learned at Kinokuni?


Takahara-san: What I learned at Kinokuni has become the basis of everything for me, and it is not like I utilize only a part of what I learned. Yet, if I have to mention something specific, it is the joy of building something from nothing. For example, in the Kinokuni "Builder's Office" project, which I belonged to, we created a garden and a pond from a scratch, and then planted flowers and built a coffee shop there. Through these experiences, I learned the joy of making something. Also, the volunteers that I work with have various ideas and motivations. In my current job, it is important to understand their opinions. I think what I learned at Kinokuni has helped me to understand different perspectives while respecting diversity.


Interviewer: Please tell us about the attractiveness of your current job and your future perspective.


Takahara-san: This is my fourth year at Second Harvest Japan. I meet over 100 volunteer staff per week, or 5,000 a year, all of whom come from different backgrounds. For example, people who live on the streets, employees of large corporations, foreign workers, housewives, and students join our soup-runs on Saturdays. The attractiveness of my job is that I can learn while being involved with these people. As an adult, I realize that one needs the ability to work freely. So, in order to work more freely, I would like to enhance my abilities.


Although it must not be easy coordinating volunteers from different backgrounds, Takahara-san, whose smile says "Kinokuni is my base," finds this to be "fulfilling."

Freedom is fun and interesting, but tough

The second graduate we spoke to is Mr. Naoto Saga (hereafter, "Saga-san"). He is currently working at a general trading company, in the import and export of oil and in other trading business in the energy department.


Saga-san: I first came across Kinokuni when I was reading a newspaper for elementary school students in the third grade. Kinokuni was introduced as a school that allows students to select classes and lessons. This interested me, prompting me to ask my parents to enroll me in the school. Although I loved the school that I was attending at that time, I did not think it very interesting to do just what adults told me to.


Interviewer: What impressed you at Kinokuni?


Saga-san: In the beginning, I had a hard time at meetings, as I did not have my own opinions when I was asked to share them with others. Kinokuni often holds meetings at which we are asked to provide our own opinions. Even the school regulations and the graduation trip are decided through discussion with the students.


Interviewer: From your graduation till today, what has been your career path?


Saga-san: After graduating from Kinokuni Junior High School, I attended a boarding school in Switzerland, the Leysin American School. This was because I needed a toughening experience other than freedom. During my high school days, based on my interests, I had the opportunity to take part in international cooperation projects such as agricultural support in Kenya and food assistance in Bosnia. After graduating from high school, I returned to Japan and majored in agricultural and botanical science at Osaka Prefecture University. Then, after graduation, I joined a general trading company in 2007. As I had worked for international support activities at NGOs before this, I initially considered seeking a similar job, but I then decided to work for a general trading company as I lacked business experience.


Interviewer: Please tell us how you utilize your experience at Kinokuni in society.


Saga-san: My current job is to create a business scheme from scratch. I can speak to anybody and visit any country in order to do this. In any case, you begin all things by thinking about them on your own. You can investigate, but if there is something that you don't know, you ask people. You organize your ideas and discuss them with others, and then cooperate with others to bring your plan into practice. This was the exact process that I followed at Kinokuni. In the all-school meetings or late-night meetings in the dormitory at Kinokuni, I learned that when you hit a wall, you can effect a breakthrough by thoroughly discussing the issue with others. It has always been a philosophy of mine that the freedom to live based on your own decisions is difficult, and that it is interesting and fun to attempt to overcome this difficulty.


Interviewer: After entering the workforce, what do you think is necessary for today's education?


Saga-san: What is necessary in education today is to allow students to experience both the fun part of freedom and its toughness. Today, we have to work with unknown people not only from Japan but also from foreign countries. I believe that we need education that helps children find flexible approaches out of freewheeling thought on their own and that cultivates the ability in them to create something new out of an unknown situation.


The words of Saga-san, who faces the challenging but interesting task of creating a business scheme from a scratch, were stirring but firmly grounded. Both Takahara-san and Saga-san have chosen their own paths after graduating from Kinokuni, which have had some turns and twists. Although we cannot presume to know about all Kinokuni graduates through these two individuals, we understand that some graduates do live their lives based on their education at Kinokuni.

Future of education that makes children "enjoy living their life everyday"

School education presents various challenges. We asked Hori-san about the education we should provide to children who will support future society and about his own future perspective.


Hori-san: There are three types of education required. First, we need fun education that does not cause children to lose their confidence. Second, we need education that makes children think, not memorize; third, we need education that helps children experience the joy of accomplishing something through cooperation with others, without being isolated. I believe that if we do not examine every aspect of emotion, intelligence, sociality, and human relationship, we will end up hindering ourselves.


Interviewer: What future perspective do you have yourself?


Hori-san: For one, we have to deepen our daily educational practices; I think this is an endless challenge. Apart from this, I have heard some say that they would like to establish schools like Kinokuni in other parts of Japan. I would like to deepen our horizontal relationship with them. Up until now, we have been occupied with managing our own issues, but I would now like to take the hands of others who have similar thoughts as I do.


Besides Kinokuni Children's Village Elementary and Junior High school, Kinokuni has established many other schools such as Katsuyama Children's Village Elementary and Junior High School, Minami-Alps Children's Village Elementary and Junior High School, Kita-Kyushu Children's Village Junior High School, and Kinokuni Kokusai Kousen High School. Moreover, with Kinokuni as the precedent, private schools with similar educational policies to Kinokuni have been established in other locations.


At the end, we asked Hori-san what influence he thinks Kinokuni has had on society in the 22 years since its opening.


Hori-san: I established this school in order to stir up a small educational revolution, and, in a good sense, the school seems to have created ripples. I should mention that I have never been complained about or pressured by local governments or the MEXT; rather, they have supported us. Currently, private schools with a focus on experience learning, like Kinokuni, have been established throughout Japan and my books have been translated into Korean. A Swedish student also chose Kinokuni as a theme of his/her graduation paper. I believe it is good for us and for Japanese children to receive support from others in Japan.


Remembering Hori-san's words, "We may not have this or that, but we have many things that we can enjoy," we left Kinokuni. The essence of enjoyable lessons is to learn to live your own life, and the school's principle of self-determination raises children's motivation levels. These children experience freedom, which cannot be enjoyed without the spirit of self-discipline. They go through trial and error in seeking answers to questions that may have no answers. In the mountains, we could hear the energetic echoes of the voices of children enjoying their life.





Neill's words, "First ensure the happiness of children, and everything else will follow" are found at the top of the Kinokuni website. This is easy to say, but hard to practice. The school strictly follows the principle of self-determination, but this is based on the premise that it is always adults who have to take the final responsibility. Kinokuni says that if this freedom implies that "you can do it freely, but under your own responsibility," children can never be free.


For children, school is a major part of life. If school itself is not enjoyable, they cannot enjoy their lives, and this could result in low levels of self-affirmation and lack of hope in the future. We therefore understand why Kinokuni is concerned about making school a fun place. We initially study kanji characters in order to learn various other things, and we learn concepts and formulas in order to prevent difficulties in our daily lives. However, picking up a school textbook or facing a blackboard without understanding this original purpose of study would be painful even for an adult. A "project" lesson that generates high motivation, on the other hand, is certain to be enjoyable even for adults.


It may be a little surprising that graduates from a school in a village are playing active roles on the global stage. However, I feel that this is because they have learned about beginning something from scratch and about living autonomously while maintaining harmony with others' values. How can we bring out each child's potential? I think that a good school is that in which adults focus on this issue and take necessary action.

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Takaaki Ishizaka

The Editor-in-Chief of the website

Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD)


Ishizaka has worked in hotel development, mainly with the Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons in North America. After transferring to Benesse Corporation, he has been involved in a number of new projects. He has also served as manager for the development of the Test of Communicative Chinese (TECC)—the first language proficiency test in which Benesse employs Item Response Theory (IRT)—and as a manager for corresponding learning business for adults. In 2008, he joined the launch of "Local Activation Team" system by the Japan Organization for Internal Migration (JOIN) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, after temporarily transferring to the Japan Center for Regional Development. He has been in his current position since 2013. His interests lie in local actions taken by global human resources and learning designs.