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The Time I Learned About Japan’s Insane Education System

January 18, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


Having lived with a host family and been a teacher in Japan, I’ve seen the effects of Japan’s education system first-hand.

My host family had two school-aged children who were plodding their way through Japan’s compulsory schooling. Like in the United States, attendance is only mandatory through the end of junior high school. Afterwards, students go through a mini “Exam Hell” for entrance into high school.

Often times, attendance at a certain junior high school determines where you go to high school, which in turn determines where you will attend college, which determines what job you will receive. Despite a Japan that has changed significantly from the 1980s mentality of “life-long employment” at one company, the rigidity of the education system remains. Many elite Japanese companies limit their new hires to recent graduates of the creme de la creme universities in the country. Without a degree from Tokyo, Kyoto, or a handful of other universities, your chances of being hired by one of the well-paying behemoths of Japanese technology are slim to nil.

Thus this march to the workforce is plagued by fierce competition every step of the way. Children strive from elementary school onwards for success in each set of entrance exams. A test that you took when you were 12 could affect your career at age 30. High schools, and sometimes even junior high schools, stay on your resume for life in Japan.

To get an edge on the competition, an estimated 50% of school-age children attend academic juku after school. This extra tutoring helps kids, especially the rich, to prepare themselves fully for the high school exams to follow. A popular juku, Kumon, has even reached American shores to help students here improve their science and math scores.

Both children in my host family, boys ages 8 and 11, attended juku at least three times a week back in 2004. The older one’s lessons lasted late into the evening as he prepared for his high school exams, and he would blearily wander home past 10 pm, weakly saying hello to everyone and wolfing down some rice before heading directly to bed. The younger one got out at the somewhat more sane hour of 7 pm, and would join us for dinner in sullen misery.

While the older child managed to get into one of his top choice high schools, the younger one was not so lucky. He had hated studying from a young age, and while I was living with them, I would frequently witness his father throwing erasers and pencils at him in anger over his grades. Apparently this was supposed to encourage him? But he did go to high school none the less, where he could then begin feverishly preparing for the college entrance exams.

These are far worse than the high school exams, and are brutal in their scope and strictness. It is for these tests that the term “Exam Hell” was coined, and the process differs considerably from the American model. It is said that Japanese colleges are difficult to get into, but easy to graduate from, while American colleges are the opposite.

All students (or at least those applying for college, especially public colleges) must take the “Center Test,” which is a nationally standardized exam somewhat analogous to the SAT in the States. But while the SAT only last 3.75 hours and is given seven times a year, the Center Test is a two-day test of endurance given only once per year. The rules are extremely strict regarding the timing of the test, and no exceptions are made, even for illness or accident. If you miss the test, you simply have to take a year off and wait until next year.

College admissions in Japan are almost solely based on your score on the Center Test and a possible “second test” that differs from school to school. Your score on the Center Test determines whether you are even eligible for the second test at a particularly university. And since most of the second tests are administered on the same date, you have to choose early which schools you want to attend. A few schools require essays or interviews as part of their second tests, but they are the exception rather than the rule. For the vast majority of schools, your entrance relies solely on your test score.

This has all come up lately since the older host kid, now 17, just took his Center Test. My host mom told me that the average score across all subjects of the Center Test is 65 out of 100, and students are tested on everything from world history to calculus, somewhat like the American ACT test. Her son wanted to attend medical school, which means gaining admission to a 6-year program now. However, the absolute minimum to even take a second test at any of these schools is an 85 average, with a 95+ necessary to ensure admission. He scored an 82.

He is now left with a dilemma. For students like him that are barred from even applying to their choice schools, there are a few options. He could settle for a lower-tier school, but must then give up his dream to become a doctor. He could forgo a college education completely, but the career options are severely limited for such individuals. The third option, which he seems likely to choose, is to become a ronin. This term originally referred to masterless samurai, but now applies to students without a school. As a ronin, he would wait a year before attempting the Center Test once more. In the meantime, there is a special juku for ronin called yobikou, which specializes specifically in Center Test preparation. However, the tuition for such a school is steep, and is comparable to a year’s tuition at a private college.

However, the competition each year is so fierce that many students take this option, choosing to study and try again rather than be sentenced to a low-paying job by their test scores. But this extra year, while frowned upon, is still quite common and accepted. However, if the student fails to gain entrance to his school of choice the second time around, he is out of chances. I’m not sure of the rules, but even if a third Center Test is allowed, no university would accept such a student, so you really only get one second chance. After that, it’s college or bust.

Needless to say, after all this pressure from the age of 10 years old or so, my host brother is completely fed up with the system. The other night, he told his mother that he wanted to be a comedian instead of a doctor, which sent her into hysterics. She hasn’t slept in two days. Her kyoiku mama tendencies may have finally caught up with her.

  1. Jill young
    April 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Such a long text , I only understand a little bit about how Japan’s education system works.
    It is so strict and makes stress from studying in Japan.

  2. qamar
    August 31, 2014 at 3:06 am

    Its really strictly and difficult senescence for student who prepared to reach high score of middle test to get the application of college.

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