Based on the original worksheet instruction idea by founder and mathematics teacher Toru Kumon, the Japanese private tutoring company became an international phenomenon in the 1970s, starting from America. Since then, Kumon’s learning method has helped children globally to increase their mathematics skills enormously. Today, over 24,000 Kumon centers are active in more than 60 countries and regions worldwide – and there are more than 100 centers in Germany. With Masahiro Shimizu, President of Kumon Europe & Africa, Mayumi Abe, General Manager of Kumon Germany and Mariko Fuchs, one of the most experienced Kumon instructors in Germany, we talked about the rise of the Kumon method and their plans for the future.
J-BIG: Where did the idea for the Kumon learning method come from?
Mayumi Abe: The first ever worksheet was created in 1954 by Toru Kumon, a Japanese math high school teacher. He created it for his son, Takeshi, who was a second grader in primary school. Takeshi struggled at school and did not bring home good test results, so he hid them in his pocket. So, when his mother found out she consulted her husband and he started thinking about how to instruct his son. Based on his experience as a high school math teacher, he knew that once students entered high school, many struggles due to a lack of math calculation skills could arise. Therefore, he not only made an effort to create a school curriculum for primary school, but set the final goal for his son to be successful enough in mathematics in high school. Starting from that highest goal he broke down the process into smaller units.
J-BIG: How did this process look like?
Mayumi Abe: Toru Kumon resolved to create worksheets for his son on a daily basis, handing them over to him every day before dinner. After dinner, he went through the completed worksheets and added remarks and advice. The son received the feedback on the following day and it became a piling up process, repeated on a daily basis. By the time Takeshi had become a sixth grader at primary school, he had already reached the level of a high school student and could do differential and integral calculus. The original work sheets can be seen in the Toru Kumon Museum in Osaka, which is the former home of the founder of the Kumon method.
J-BIG: How did the idea of the Kumon method expand?
Mayumi Abe: Toru Kumon and his wife Teiko started to help out the children from the neighborhood, too. Teiko copied the original work sheets and used them to work with several children. Interestingly they seemed to work for all of them. So they concluded that it might be a good idea to expand his idea into a bigger business, in order to be able to help more children. In 1958, a friend helped Toru Kumon to transform his idea into a business. In the beginning it was not a company though, but the Osaka Institute of Mathematics. It was later renamed and restructured and became the Kumon Institute of Education in 1983.
Masahiro Shimizu: Another driving factor for Kumon is the Japanese concept of “Mottainai” – a sense of regret over waste. A school does not respond individually to the abilities of the students. This leads to a waste of potential. This was a driving force for the idea for Kumon. We wanted to create a social company that contributes to society and can solve situations like that.
J-BIG: How did Kumon become an international institution?
Masahiro Shimizu: Parents who experienced Kumon in Japan went as expatriates to the U.S. and wanted their children to be able to continue studying with Kumon. This led to the opening of the first overseas Kumon Math Center in 1974 in New York City. Also, there was a huge turning point concerning the public awareness of Kumon in the 70s. The famous magazine TIME reported about the Kumon method which led to a heavily increased demand for Kumon in the U.S.. Around this time, Toru Kumon also published a book on the secret of the Kumon learning method in Japan, which became a bestseller, and published several workbooks for preschool children.
J-BIG: Did Kumon expand to other countries, too? And what kind of school subjects does Kumon cover?
Mayumi Abe: In 1980, the first language program, the Kumon English program, was launched. Today we offer several languages for native and non-native speakers, such as Japanese, German, French, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish. After New York, we opened Kumon centers in Taiwan, Brazil and Germany in 1979. After that, we opened affiliate companies in Brazil and in Germany, followed by other countries, such as USA, Australia, Hong Kong and Canada.
J-BIG: So, what is the difference between your Kumon centers and an affiliate company?
Mayumi Abe: Usually, we open a center first and if it runs well, we follow with the establishment of a local company. In Germany we started over 40 years ago with a center in Munich and established the company in Düsseldorf.
J-BIG: What is the definition of a Kumon center and how do I open a Kumon Center?
Mayumi Abe: We have several steps to recruit instructors. They need to attend an orientation meeting and pass the aptitude test. They need to be fluent in English and ideally the local language and we assess their skills or interests in the education business. After that, they join an instructor training for two weeks in Athens, Greece, where we have a training center. Once they complete that instructor training, they can sign a franchise agreement with us and can open their center in the designated area.
Masahiro Shimizu: Basically, our instructors are individual business owners and Kumon works with a franchise concept. The main role of the instructor is the role as an educator, but they must also manage the business side of things well. They pay a fixed monthly royalty per subject such as Mathematics and English to the company.
J-BIG: Are all Kumon centers standardized then?
Mariko Fuchs: On the basis, every Kumon center works in the same way, but additional to that the character or personality of the instructors is also playing a big role to give every Kumon center a personal note. In general, I find it really interesting that Kumon has been using this franchise system for over 60 years now, because this has interesting effects on the Japanese society, too. As you know, the Japanese gender work and pay gap quote is very large in international comparison. Most women couldn’t get any good job 60 years ago. There were many very well-educated young women who went to good universities but could not enfold their potential. Toru Kumon also saw this as a waste of talent – another aspect of “Mottainai”. So, in the first phase, many women became instructors, opening a classroom at home.
J-BIG: What kind of backgrounds do the instructors usually have?
Mariko Fuchs: Actually, they have diverse backgrounds. Some of them were instructors or language school teachers, but some of them were working as engineers in companies or are managers of HR departments. They decided to change their career due to changing lifetime plans or a need to change their lifestyle and their working times as well.
J-BIG: Kumon has several centers in Germany. Pupils are Japanese but also many Germans. Do you perceive a difference in the behavior of Japanese and German parents?
Mariko Fuchs: From my experience, the Japanese parents are not as directly involved while German parents are particularly active. In Japan it is actually very common to send the children to additional institutions like cram school and the parents do not help their children out much, which is understandable since their working hours are much longer. So the parents do not have much time for their children at home, which might be a bit problematic. Also, I have perceived that German parents often praise their children and communicate with their children quite well. They always observe their own children and motivate them. But this is something that occurs very seldom in Japanese families. I feel like we don’t express our feelings in such a way.
rdem habe ich festgestellt, dass deutsche Eltern ihre Kinder oft loben und sehr gut mit ihren Kindern kommunizieren. Sie beobachten ihre eigenen Kinder immer und motivieren sie. Das kommt in japanischen Familien aber nur sehr selten vor. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass wir unsere Gefühle nicht auf diese Weise ausdrücken.
“J-BIG – Japan Business in Germany” is the e-mail magazine dedicated to Japanese companies and their business activities in the German market.
J-BIG: What kind of revenue streams do the Kumon centers have?
Mayumi Abe: Basically, we have a registration fee and a monthly fee in which the material fee is already included. The fees differ according to the location of the center.
Mariko Fuchs: The entrance fee of my center is 35 Euro and the monthly fee is 95 Euro for one subject and 85 Euro for the second subject, for example if the child takes Mathematics and English classes. But I think that my center is quite low-priced compared to other centers.
Mayumi Abe: The average fee in Germany is 109 Euro per subject as a monthly fee.
J-BIG: What does this monthly membership fee include?
Mariko Fuchs: The child comes into the center once or twice a week, it depends on the family. They receive homework and the materials from us and learn about half an hour for every subject. Since Corona, we have implemented a time frame system but before Corona, every child could come flexibly. When they are here, they usually learn by themselves and can ask questions if they need help. Before going home, they receive a new homework which they prepare for the next time. Kumon is an autodidactic system. We give the students the suitable worksheets according to their level. So they can do it by themselves. We observe them well and if they face difficulties in the longer run, we adapt the worksheets accordingly.
Mayumi Abe: Basically, we support students to run by themselves which is a bit like motivation management. We help them set a learning plan, keep learning and reach their goal. The instructors place a great emphasis on “discovering potential.” They first find out what students “can” do, rather than what they “can’t” do, by observing their learning and examining their completed worksheets. They create a learning plan with small steps for each day of class to slowly increase their abilities. Parents often tend to focus on what their children can’t do. The teacher is also a supporter in finding what the child can do and developing his or her potential to the maximum by bringing it to the parents’ attention and encouraging it along with them.
J-BIG: Coming back to the internationalization: How did you decide many decades ago to expand to the German market?
Mariko Fuchs: Toru Kumon studied mathematics and had a strong relation with Germany in this context. Being very thankful for the education he got in Germany he wanted to express his gratitude. This is why he played a major role in the expansion to Germany in the first phase back in the late 1970s.
J-BIG: Since its establishment over forty years ago, how did Kumon develop in Germany and how does it perform today?
Mariko Fuchs: I personally have known the first Kumon teacher in Munich and I started working at Kumon in 1986. At that time there were already seven or eight Kumon centers in Germany in focus cities of the Japanese community, such as Munich, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt. In the beginning, almost all of the students were Japanese. However, there was a turning point in 2000. It was the first year that the first PISA study was published and Germany did not score so well in comparison with other countries. It was a huge sensation and widely reported about. At the same time, Japan brought top level results. So this actually had been a very good advertisement for Kumon since German parents might have thought that their child could profit from the Japanese Kumon method. Therefore, I remember German students started coming to us in 2000.
J-BIG: Is the majority of the students still Japanese today?
Mayumi Abe: In Germany we have around 5000 students right now. We do not have data regarding their nationality, but I would estimate that we have around 500 students of Japanese origin, so around 10 per cent. Also, we have around one hundred instructors in Germany, but only six or seven of them are Japanese.
Mariko Fuchs: I run two centers. One of them is in Meerbusch and the other one is in Düsseldorf. In Düsseldorf the ratio is fifty-fifty, but in my class in Meerbusch almost all the students are German or are German with a migration background from Turkey, Russia, China and so on.
J-BIG: How do parents and children get to know about the Kumon method and your centers?
Mariko Fuchs: In my center the most effective method is “word-of-mouth”. If parents realize that a classmate suddenly became very good, they get curious, ask the child’s parents about it and learn about Kumon this way. And recently I have some students who came due to a recommendation by their school, by their teachers or by their therapists.
Masahiro Shimizu: Also, it is not only the academic result which catches the attention of parents. A Kumon staff member from the UK told me one day there was a gathering where children were playing and a mother noticed that one of the children, who was in fact a Kumon student, had much deeper concentration than the others. So apart from academic skills also non-cognitive skills become more prominent.
J-BIG: How do the numbers of Kumon look like on a global scale and how much revenue does Kumon globally make?
Masahiro Shimizu: In Europe we have around 1000 Kumon centers. Globally there are around 24,000. We make about 76 billion Japanese Yen revenue, which is about 550 million Euro.
Mayumi Abe: In Germany we have 100 Kumon centers and 27 associates, 17 in here and 10 in our branch in Athens. We make about 3 million Euro revenue but this also includes the revenue of the royalty of the Deutschland GmbH and the companies in 13 other European countries. Our staff from Düsseldorf and Athens support instructors in 14 countries and are working to expand our centers to a total of 16 countries.
J-BIG: Why did you want to make Germany the second largest Kumon location in Europe in 2016?
Masahiro Shimizu: Immediately after joining Kumon Europe & Africa in 2016, my major mission became a new growth strategy of Kumon Germany, the expansion of Kumon on the European continent, and the full use of Germany as a second tier in Europe. So far, the UK is dominant when it comes to the income for Kumon in Europe and Africa – with around 620 centers. Also, the brand awareness for Kumon is very high in the UK. People actually often assume that it is a British company instead of a Japanese one, since it’s so well-known in the UK. However, in terms of population, the European continent has ten times more citizens. So, looking at this potential, I chose Germany because it has a very central position geographically seen. In addition to that, we opened our training center in Greece, which is a wonderful and nurturing environment for our new instructors.
J-BIG: How was the impact of Corona for your company?
Mayumi Abe: Before Corona, we had a total of 4.2 million students across the world. But, due to Corona our student numbers dropped down to 3.6 million.
Masahiro Shimizu: The number of our centers used to be more than 25,000, and now declined to about 24,000. So the crisis had quite an impact on our activities for sure.
J-BIG: How did you instruct the students during Corona?
Mariko Fuchs: I offered them Zoom Sessions and they learned at home.
Mayumi Abe: Basically, our students could not come to the center, so our instructors prepared worksheets and sent them to the students. Or the parents came to the center to pick up the assignments. We helped children via Zoom sessions, they could use their smartphones to contact us while studying and the instructors observed them online via Zoom.
J-BIG: How was the impact of Corona for your company?
Mayumi Abe: Right now, we are targeting bigger centers like Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg. So we focus on big cities and increase the numbers of centers to expand our brand awareness. Also, we have already expanded our centers to 13 countries surrounding Germany. We would like to establish a center in each European capital city. Since people are moving and transferring a lot in continental Europe this seems to work quite well: our instructors have various backgrounds and nationalities. Some of them experienced Kumon for the first time in the U.S. or the UK. Then they moved to continental Europe and opened their own center. So nowadays our business is borderless.
J-BIG: There is a lot of discussion about digitalization in German schools. How do you see that as Kumon?
Masahiro Shimizu: We think a lot about how children and instructors want to work and try to adapt our methods accordingly. In 2023, we launched the tablet study with the Kumon Method “Kumon Connect”. Also, we are taking into consideration to collaborate with other companies, for example a tablet manufacturer to provide digital education. In general, we let our students choose the way they want to study with Kumon. Our students can bring their tablet from home or they can also use our worksheets in paper format and they can use Zoom sessions or learn directly in the center. Also, in our app we have new functions, such as “replay”, which shows how you studied after your session. This helps our instructors to understand the different or unique thought processes of our students.
Mayumi Abe: When you hear about tablets or digital learning systems with apps, you usually think of something automatic with AI. One of the features of Kumon Connect is the human touch, which emphasizes the three-way connection between instructor, student and parent. Whether paper or tablet-based, the human touch method is the same. What has changed is that the tablet allows students to instantly visualize and share their learning plans and progress. Instructors are now able to observe and provide more detailed instruction not only in the twice-weekly classes, but also at home.
J-BIG: Why should parents and children try Kumon?
Mariko Fuchs: Kumon is not only about mathematics or language learning. I have several students of the second generation, which means that their parents already learned with us. Now their children come to our center. Why? Because the parents think that it was very good for their life. They learn important abilities, such as patience, taking continuing effort and how to concentrate well.
Mayumi Abe: Exactly. Our students gain a daily study habit. This skill is linked to everything, also to other activities such as playing the piano or doing sports. With Kumon, the children learn concentration and management. They also gain confidence to try new challenges and to be not afraid of them. In the future, children will have to face unknown challenges that humans have never experienced before. From our experience, we are convinced that the sense of achievement and self-confidence gained through Kumon will lead them to enjoy unknown challenges.