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Juku: an unnecessary evil or vital steppingstone to success?

by Louise George Kittaka

For the past year, Tokyo sixth-grader Manami has had dinner at home an average of four times a week. The rest of the time she has had to make do with a juku-ben, a boxed dinner prepared by her mother and consumed between classes at juku, or cram school.

With a view to entering a private junior high school, Manami has been attending juku since the end of third grade, building up to three weekday evenings and most of Saturday from sixth grade. Three years of late nights, limited free time and piles of homework culminated in a round of entrance exams last month. Manami passed the test to attend her school of choice and can now finally relax and enjoy the remaining few weeks of elementary school with her friends.

The very mention of juku or its English equivalent, cram school, conjures up images of young heads being literally stuffed with facts and tired bodies hunched over desks, leaving many foreign parents shaking their heads and wondering why school isn’t enough.

Some Japanese parents start off asking the same question, as most would not have hit juku until their teens, having most likely attended in their final year of high school in preparation for the infamous university juken jigoku (entrance exam hell). The other peak age for juku is the last year of junior high, when compulsory education finishes and public school students face exams to enter high school. In fact, ninth- and 12th-graders generally “retire” from school club activities, which have been all-consuming until this point, as it is assumed they will be too busy cramming for their exams and, by association, attending juku.

Increasingly, however, Japanese parents are looking at juku for their children well before the teenage years. According to a 2010 survey of parents of preschool and elementary-age children by Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions Co., Ltd., some 60 percent thought their kids would need juku or some other kind of supplementary education beyond that offered by the public elementary school system.

Even the government seems stumped about the best way to manage public education in recent years. In 2001 yutori kyōiku (relaxed education) was introduced to great fanfare and public schools did away with Saturday classes. Along with a reduced curriculum, children were to be given more free time to spend with their families or pursue hobbies and community activities.

Ten years down the line, however, alarm at Japan’s drop in international educational rankings, coupled with somber reports of a generation of university graduates lacking basic academic skills, have seen a complete pendulum shift in education. From 2012, curriculum content for public schools has been revamped and increased, necessitating longer school days and, inevitably, a move back to Saturday schooling in many areas of Japan.

No wonder many Japanese parents are confused about the best way to help their kids stay afloat amid this educational sea change, and are turning to juku to fill in the gaps. Like it or not, juku plays an integral role in the education system in this country. So where does that leave foreign parents?

In a recent study, Melodie Cook, an associate professor at the University of Niigata, researched the experience of foreign parents with juku. Cook says that while some of the participants start off “bewildered, even angry” at the idea of paying for extra education over and above regular school, as their children move through the system they turn to juku for a number of reasons.

“It’s not black and white. There are, of course, parents who take the view that if their kids are going to grow up here, then they have to do ‘the juku thing.’ Then there are those who find that [they] can’t help their kids with their homework and don’t know the system for advancement. They use juku like a consulting service,” Cook notes. “And then there are many cases where the kids themselves want to go.”

Regardless of the background reasons, Cook found that once the decision had been made to send their child to juku, parents usually took it seriously. “They were on board with it, putting their personal feelings aside and seeing the value in the process.”

Edward, the father of a teenage son who started attending at the end of seventh grade in junior high school, admits that he had a mainly negative image of juku up until that point. “I regarded it as a necessary evil for advancement here, but I didn’t want to subject my son to it any earlier than necessary. He was doing OK in school, but one of his close friends started going to juku so he tagged along one evening. He enjoyed the lesson, saying it was more interesting than school. We talked it over at home and then my wife signed him up.”

Cook says foreign parents should be aware that not all juku are the same. “Look around and realize that juku isn’t all one big monolith,” she advises, noting that some children are better suited to one type of cram school than another.

In her study, some children attended shingaku juku (generally large chains specializing in exam preparation techniques) while others attended juku for hoshu (support with their regular school studies). Some hoshu juku are quite small, with a more relaxed atmosphere that may appeal to children.

A hybrid approach is offered by juku specializing in kobetsu shidō, combining the merits of individual tuition with the reputation of a national juku chain. Kids can sign up for the days and times that suit their schedule, studying in individual cubicles while teachers rotate between two or three students per session.

While foreign parents can usually accept that their children will probably benefit from juku from junior high, it may go against the grain to send a child who is still in elementary school. Many of those with younger children in Cook’s survey said that regular school was enough, and that their children’s time after school was better spent on sports and hobbies, working on English at home or simply enjoying their childhood. If they did seek supplementary studies, these families were more likely to subscribe to one of the distance learning programs offered by educational publishers. Children can work on the materials at home, and the cost is usually considerably cheaper than attending juku.

Nevertheless, in line with trends found in the general population, some foreign parents are deciding that they want to go the private route from junior high school. For the more prestigious schools, particularly those in the larger cities, this almost always equates to several years of juku attendance in elementary school, not to mention a slew of homework on the days they don’t go.

A 2011 national survey of child-raising by the Benesse Educational Research and Development Center showed that fifth- and sixth-graders aiming for junior high juken (entrance exams) study for more than 2½ hours per day outside of regular school. By comparison, their peers moving on to public junior high only put in an average of 50 minutes.

According to Nichinoken, a nationwide juku chain specializing in junior high school entrance preparation, around 1 in 5 elementary school children in the Tokyo-Kanagawa-Saitama-Chiba area go on to private school. The procedures for this age group are sometimes referred to as “parental juken,” since mom and dad have a greater influence on their child’s choices compared to older students.

“It isn’t simply about getting their child into a high-level school,” said a Nichinoken spokesperson. “There are a wide variety of private schools, enabling parents to steer their child towards a school that is in tune with family values and goals for their child’s future.”

From third grade, Viv says her daughter started complaining about the boys at school. “Some of them played up and wasted time in class, and the teacher did nothing to stop them. That’s when she said she wanted to attend an all-girls school from junior high.” Viv enrolled her child at a kobetsu shidō juku with a flexible schedule that could be fitted around ballet and piano lessons. Her daughter, now an eighth-grader, gained entrance to her school of choice and is thriving in the single-sex environment.

Viv admits that both she and her daughter found the whole juken process taxing. “Frankly, at times I wondered if we were doing the right thing. If she had wanted to stop halfway, I would have let her. But the juku were very supportive throughout, and seeing how happy she is at her school now, I feel it was worth it. And now she has a straight run through till the end of high school, while her friends who went to public junior high have to think about high school entrance exams next year.”

Her fourth-grade son is still undecided about junior high but is currently going to juku twice a week “just in case.”

Some families start preparation for school even younger — from preschool in some instances. After hearing disturbing reports of bullying incidents at the local public elementary, Sharyn and her husband enrolled their 4-year-old daughter at a juku specializing in private elementary school juken. A professional translator, Sharyn reads and writes Japanese but found herself struggling to keep pace. “You are thrust into a completely new world where you don’t even know the vocabulary,” she said.

By her daughter’s last year of kindergarten, Sharyn was juggling her job with ferrying her child to juku in two different locations, while also helping her complete 20 “homework sheets” a week. In addition to instruction on exam technique, interview protocol and physical coordination, Sharyn was stunned to find that time was devoted to “appropriate behavior for girls,” such as sitting quietly with knees tighter.

“It was a painful and expensive process, but it produced two important results: Her Japanese was brought up to native level — although perhaps at the expense of her English — and she got to go to a really nice elementary school. So all in all, you can say we are satisfied juku customers.”

At the other end of the spectrum, there are, of course, students who can succeed without ever stepping foot in a juku. One family in Cook’s survey had a child who gained entrance to Tokyo University, widely considered Japan’s finest, without forking out a single yen for cram school. For a self-starter, sheer determination coupled with a solid home study program might be enough, but the road to university is probably too tough for the majority of kids to travel alone.

While most foreign parents are unlikely to go to the same lengths as Sharyn and enroll their children from pre-elementary school age, juku can help novices navigate the labyrinth of the Japanese education system.

Cook says that parents should bear in mind that regular public school is very egalitarian, perhaps to a fault. “Public education in this country is middle ground; if your kid is behind or advanced, then you are probably going to want to consider juku at some stage.”

Names of some children and parents have been changed due to privacy concerns. The parents interviewed were not participants in Dr. Cook’s study. Please send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • Devin

    Education in Japan is one of the areas that wreck my brain when it comes to deciding whether to move to Japan. Paying for grade school, and cram school, and all the strict rules my child would have to go through…I think the Education Ministry in Japan should come out with a booklet for foreigners so we can understand the processes better.

  • WithMalice

    Surely the answer to the status issue of Japan’s education measured on a world-wide scale isn’t to focus even more on cramming facts, figures and statistics into little heads, but to pay a greater level of attention to analytical thinking. Virtually non-existent at the moment.

  • Ron NJ

    The education system here is a complete wreck, and the obvious white elephant in the room isn’t international rankings or not enough studying, it’s the point of it all: students here are taught how to pass a test, not how to think about information, parse it, evaluate it, or think critically about it. It’s 100% formulaic, a + b = c, and “if you stare at your book long enough, you’ll absorb the information via osmosis”. Pack all the information into their heads that you want; you can tell education here has failed when I walk into a room full of students and ask a simple question, say, “What do you think about education in Japan?” and not a single person will speak up.

  • Brian

    Come on. I know you need to sell a story, but an “evil?” You put so much effort into the story, why foul it up with a lazy headline?

    • Smokey Snaps

      The headline gives two polar opposite choices: unnecessary evil (a play on “necessary evil”) or vital steppingstone to success. It leaves it to the reader to decide what to think without making a judgement. What on earth is wrong with that?

  • Concerned

    This is why we send our kids to international school.

    • DNALeri

      I am glad you can afford it.

  • http://twitter.com/Jkid4 Ndee -Jkid- Okeh

    Juku masks the real issue with education in Japan: Job Discrimination based on educational institution. In many jobs in Japan they accept select applicants from few top educational institutions. Although there are plenty of decent colleges in Japan, the only way to get a decent life in the country is by going to the top schools.

    • WithMalice

      Well… the fact that the education attained isn’t up to par on a world scale doesn’t help either.
      As has been stated numerous times already, the ability to actually *think* rather than simply parrot a line of facts/statistics… this is what should be focused on.

  • Nevin Thompson

    I ran a cram school with my wife in Japan for 5 years or so. We “taught to the test” in subject like math and physics, and also, of course English. We had about 70 students and employed several other part-time instructors. It was a lot of fun, mostly because it was not “eikaiwa” or English conversation, and we were helping D students become C students, and C students become B students, all in hopes (usually successful) of passing high school and university entrance exams.

    I think the key factor that needs to be understood is that Japan and other northeast Asian countries (as well as Vietnam) come from a long history of test-taking. It’s cultural. Practically speaking, every single university and every single high school has a different entrance exam. When we operated the school about 10 years ago, at the dawn of the internet era in Japan, we had resource materials and example entrance exams for most major universities in Japan. As well, our instructors typically understood the different high school entrance exams in our prefecture and how to prepare for them.

    That said, I know plenty of students and fellow parents whose kids never went to juku, and were able to get into good high schools and good universities. However, getting into a good high school is key – “better” high schools often provide their own in-house “jukus” with evening exam-prep study sessions.

    Once again, the reason is because different universities have totally different exams.

    Are jukus necessary? I never thought that the English stuff I was teaching (I did a lot of explaining, in Japanese, of grammatical concepts) was particularly helpful. Studying for an English exam is like studying for the TOEIC test – you can do it on your own. All I did was get the student to focus for three hours a week on passing that damn test.

    However, our math and physics teachers helped students understand key concepts at their own pace. And then they got into a good school, which was nice.

    The alarming thing is how much of a child’s future is foreclosed by what high school they attend. If you want a career in one of the big cities, you need to go to a good university. If you want to stay out in the provinces, you can go to a regional college.

  • Scott Durand

    The Japanese government instead of building roads to nowhere, could “pour” a lot more money into the Japanese public education system. Looking at the average public elementary, junior high or high school in Japan the faculties are very old, 40 students to class and their is very little information communication technology available to support teaching and learning, and what there is often delivered without adequate training for teachers.

    As a parent, I’m not particular interested in whether my children end up at Todai, I’d rather my children turn out to be positive functional members of society by having a well rounded education including time to learn how to be a human not just stuck in a classroom.

    Learning how to live is the most important, this is why while my children will have some of their eduction in Japan to help them to understand their identity, but the majority of the education will be conducted in Australia.

    There are a growing number of Japanese parents who are paying to have their children educated overseas including going to the extreme level of leaving father at home while mother and children live and learn overseas.

    If Japan wants to continue to be a player in the global scene then it must understand that society is changing due to the information revolution and eduction in Japan needs to keep pace with this revolution, otherwise it will continue to fall behind.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    Doubting cram school is not so radical.

    How about this notion: That if a teacher requires that kids do homework, they aren’t doing their jobs properly.

    So much of the system is designed to keep kids busy. Why? Fear. Fear that the kids will make consistently bad decisions if left to their own devices. It is all a diversion to give them something to “do”, with minimal actual benefit to their future.

    Parents benefit from going through the motions of education too, as longer school hours means a convenient daycare for them; for father to work longer hours (i.e., pretending to work late to show team spirit for the other people who are also pretending to work late, in order to avoid spending time with the battleaxe); for mother (of only one child) to have her afternoon weekday joshikai enter its 6th hour of drinking (while she complains about her husband to her friends and they all commiserate about how being a mom is such a tough job — then proceed to pay the bill with hubby’s partially hard-earned yen) so she doesn’t need to be home for her son.

    It’s pretty clear that this “kids will make bad decisions” rhetoric is a mere projection of the actual bad decisions that adults are making everyday. If there is going to be a change that helps kids, it is going to start in the culture on this level, and then educational change will follow suit.