Aiko has just finished bouncing like a rabbit toward a white line. She has already identified photographs of fruit and will soon be told a story about a panda, after which she'll have to draw a picture and offer an ending. How she does with these activities could determine where she attends university, and nobody is more nervous than her parents being interviewed next door.

At 5 years old, and after two years of preparation, Aiko is applying for admission to one of Tokyo's elite private escalator schools. Considered too taboo a topic to discuss openly, parents Tokyo and other cities in Japan are increasingly choosing to put their preschool-aged children through the juken (entrance exam) process to score a spot at a highly selective private school. Estimates suggest 8 percent of 5-year-old kids in Tokyo take part in the process, and that the establishment of private schools nationwide is on the rise — there were 172 such schools in 2000, and 210 by 2009.

Not only is significant time and money invested in juken preparation, but mothers also take on an intense burden as it is widely believed that parental effort at this stage is what determines success.