On any given February morning, you might see hundreds of young students – some with parents, or even teachers, in tow – flocking to a nearby high school or university. Chances are they are on their way to take their entrance examinations.
Entrance exams – along with hours upon hours of cram-school study – are an annual rite of passage that takes place nationwide in Japan during the second month of the year. Most people take these rigorous exams at least twice in a lifetime – for high school as well as college. Those opting for private schools test three or more times, usually starting after elementary school.
Some, like Ikuto Endo, now in his last year at Minamishitaura Middle School in Miura City, Kanagawa, take more than one exam a year just to hedge their bets.
The 15-year-old hopes to work in a car manufacturing plant after graduating from an industrial high school. He took and passed one entrance exam on Feb 10, and was slated to take another, for his dream school, on Feb 16.
“I wanted to take the exams for a public industrial high school that I want to attend, but my teacher strongly suggested that I let the school recommend me for a lower ranked private school, too, just to be sure,” he says. “She said there was a very good chance I would fail the exam and I need to prepare for the worst.”
Unlike the United States, free compulsory education in Japan extends only through junior high or middle school. Families typically pay the equivalent of around $3,000 in tuition and fees per student annually for public high school. Private schools cost twice or more as much. And students vie to get into the best high schools just as they do colleges.
High school and college exams typically cover three to five subjects, such as Japanese, English or another foreign language, math, science and social studies. They usually take the entire day with a break for lunch.
In Japan, each college and high school is ranked on a curve annually with lower ranking schools in the 30s and prestigious high schools and universities such as the University of Tokyo in the low to mid 70s.
It is widely believed that graduation from a prestigious high school and university virtually guarantees preferential treatment from prospective universities or employers after graduation. Every year, major universities are besieged by four to eight times as many applicants as there are available slots, making for stiff competition.
As a result, students study … and study … and study.
Cram school craze
“Right now, I study about three hours a day at home, besides going to a cram school to study for three hours, three times a week,” Ikuto says. “I was very worried that I would not be able to go to a high school at all, but I just today found I passed the entrance examination for a private high school. So, I feel much better. ”
Many students don’t make the cut and must decide whether to enter their second or third school of choice. The other option, primarily for university candidates, is to wait until the next year and try again.
Those who do opt to wait are called “ronin,” literally master-less samurai, as they spend a year or more college-less while studying for the next exam. About 16 percent of all university candidates were ronin in 2010, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s most recent data. (Decades ago when Japan had a larger school-age population and fewer schools, it was typically 40-50 percent.)
To give their children an edge over the competition, many parents turn to “juku,” or cram schools, which have been doing brisk business in Japan for decades. (Industry profits were at one time in the $8.8 billion range according to Bloomberg Business Weekly.)
“In Japan, February is the busiest month for most students from preschool and elementary as well as middle to high school who are preparing for examinations,” says Hideo Inaba, of Japan Juku Association.
It is widely believed by parents and children alike that regular school curriculum is not enough to acquire the test-taking skills needed for entrance exams. Inaba estimates that there are 50,000 juku in Japan and that 50-70 percent of students who plan to take entrance exams use them.
These exams tend to focus on the quantity of knowledge rather than deeper comprehension or mastery. To put it simply, the more information from textbooks students can memorize, the better their test scores.
After regular school hours, students go to these cram schools two to five times a week to study for a couple of hours. They provide thorough information on various schools and their test-giving tendencies along with painstaking guidance and coaching.
Tuition ranges between 10,000 to 50,000 yen ($90-$450) a month or more. It is part of nearly $95,000 in tuition and fees that the Ministry of Education estimates the average family pays to put one child through Japan’s public school system. It puts the average cost of going through a private school system at about $200,000.
“Although I had never dreamed of sending my son to a juku before, I couldn’t resist once I saw most of his friends preparing for their exams at one,” says Ikuto’s mother, Yuko Endo. The 47-year-old homemaker adds that like many of her friends she has taken a part-time job to pay for it. “I started to worry that he might not be able to pass the exams unless he attended one.”
Inaba thinks that theses days roughly half of the families that use juku get financial support for it from grandparents.
“That, I believe, is one of the reasons that more students can take individual lessons, which cost three times as much as group lessons,” he said, adding that the demand for one-on-one tutoring has mushroomed in the past 10 years to about 70 percent. “This is really a significant change for us.”
Students aren’t the only ones vying for high marks in this super competitive education system. Cram schools, many of them mega chains, are also looking to come out on top.
In a bid to attract more and more students, each juku competes against the other by developing its own textbooks and curriculum, hiring skilled and popular instructors and aggressively advertising how many of its former students pass the exams of prestigious schools.
“So, although the number of children has rapidly declined these days (due to Japan’s shrinking birth rate), the number of juku have pretty much remained the same,” Inaba says.
One thing that has changed, according to Inaba, is the level of ambition in many students. He says that gone are the days when most students viewed Japan’s entrance exam system as if it were a life-or-death matter.
“Many are not setting their goals very high for prestigious schools; instead they tend to be content with schools they can easily get accepted by,” he says. “Maybe it is because there are less children these days that they have to compete against, or they don’t care as much about attending brand-name schools. Only a few students study in a daredevil manner to enroll in better schools these days.”
To avoid of the competition altogether, some students turn to using recommendations from their existing schools to gain admittance. The alternative method allows a very limited number of qualifying students a shot at being admitted with just an interview and an essay or short test.
“I didn’t study for a high school entrance exam at all when I was a junior high school student. Zero,” says Nanami Asahina, 16, a senior who was admitted to Kanagawa Prefectural Kamariya High School via recommendation. “I didn’t even think about going to high school because I wanted to go to beauty school and become a beautician.”
But peer pressure landed her, reluctantly, in high school, anyway.
“My older colleagues in junior high told me that I had better to go to a high school because it would give me more experience and that would be good for my future,” she said. “That is the only reason why.”
So, for those who do opt for the traditional cram-and-exam method – with, perhaps, less fervor than their forefathers – how sweet is the taste of success?
Not very, according to Kunihiko Ishii, 19, who last year entered a private prestigious Tokyo university after cramming like crazy to make the cut.
“Once it’s over, the pressure and motivation to study are gone,” he says. “After having spent so many years studying just for exams, many of us have little sense of what comes next – or how to shape our futures.”
A little luck of the 'ema' for exams
You may be familiar with the bunches of small wooden plaques with drawings of horses and Japanese characters written on them that can be found hanging in the gardens of Shinto Shrines. These “ema,” or horse icons, are used as prayers or wishes for good luck in certain endeavors.
Japanese believe that their wish and prayers will come true if they write them on these plaques and hang them as offerings to the Shinto gods. Some of the common wishes for success include work, family peace, health and (yes, you guessed it) school entrance examinations.
As each shrine is dedicated to certain deities, different shrines are frequented for different types of fortune. Tenjin is the Shinto god of scholars, and his shrines are called “tenmangu.”
Many students who are going to take entrance exams visit such tenmangu as Futenmangu in Futnema, Okinawa; Dazaifu Tenmangu in Fukuoka Prefecture; and Yushima Tenjin in Tokyo to offer ema for success. There are many others elsewhere throughout the nation.
They buy an ema for around 200 to 1,000 yen ($1.80-$9), write their name and wish on the blank side and hang it with all the others.
The tradition originated from ancient times when people donated actual horses to the shrines for good fortune. Since horses were expensive and hard to take care of at shrines, artificial horses made from wood, paper or ceramic were later used as substitutes.
Then, over time, the use of wooden plaques came into fashion.
In February, you will likely see many students offering these ema at shrines near you.