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.

The families involved believe that private schools offer a higher-level academic alternative to public schools, which are implementing countermeasures to the yutori kyōiku (relaxed education) reforms that were enacted in 2001 and reversed in 2011.

“Contrary to the intended aim of the yutori kyōiku reforms, parents have become more anxious and distrustful of public schools,” says Emi Kataoka, a sociology professor at Komazawa University. “Receiving public education is considered an educational risk.”

Furthermore, parents hope to associate with like-minded families at private school.

“There’s a belief that there is an assemblage of ‘bad kids’ at public schools, which would be weeded out in private school juken,” says professor Yuki Honda of the University of Tokyo.

According to the Japan Private Elementary School Federation, private schools offer a continuous curriculum from elementary to the later stages of schooling. And counter to government-directed public schools, private schools can offer unique mission statements that may better meet the needs of individual students and families.

There are, however, a limited number of private elementary school options. While there are more than 50 private schools in Tokyo, there are 1,300 public schools. Therefore, the admission process can be highly competitive — out of 1,679 applicants to the prestigious Keio Yochisha Elementary School for the 2013 academic year, only 144 were accepted. Tuition there is more than ¥1.5 million per year.

When the decision is made to pursue a private-school education, parents must choose whether to apply to an escalator school that provides education through university, or one that ends earlier and requires another juken for ongoing education. Famous universities offering elementary schooling include Keio and Waseda.

K. Tanaka, a Tokyo mother whose children attend both Waseda and Keio elementary schools (and who asked that only her last name be published), made the decision to apply to escalator schools in order to avoid the juken process later.

“For junior high or high school juken, from third grade you study until late into the night at the expense of physical and emotional development,” she says. “Instead, I would like my children to study, but also intensely pursue their own interests and sports.”

The general belief that public schools are not offering quality education is propagated by juku (cram schools) that are facing potential decreases in enrollment due to the country’s falling birthrate. Chie Ohtani, an associate professor at Tamagawa University and a mother of two, says she felt considerable pressure when she explored elementary school and juku options.

“The juku director said that smart kids need juku to go to good schools because they will waste time at public schools,” she says. “If your child is an average student, then you are encouraged to try for a more prestigious school, and the juku can help him or her. And, if your child is not good at tests, then they encourage parents to support them with remedial courses because the public schools cannot help.”

M. Suzuki, a Tokyo mother of two, agrees with Ohtani’s sentiment: “The juku told us it would be a disaster to go to public school — government policies change, teachers are hit or miss, they are not selective and parental thinking is all over the place. Meanwhile, at private school, the policy is set by the school, the school listens to the parents and the children are very well mannered. The overall atmosphere of the environment is better.”

First-time mothers who may lack confidence in their parenting abilities and those with only one child — common in Japan — seem to fall prey to such rhetoric and subsequent peer pressure.

While “shopping” for schools, parents will attend various orientations and events such as sports days. These activities are pretty much mandatory, school officials will likely take attendance and the candidate families — dressed in their best navy-blue outfits — will be observed as much as they observe the schools. With this, the application process begins.

In autumn, applicants submit a comprehensive hand-written application along with a formal juken photo, they take school-specific exams and most institutions require an interview with the parents. Though exams vary by school, they can consist of a written test, art projects, puzzles and physical exercises.

The children are judged on whether they can immediately follow precise instructions, mental acuity and manners — they are not tested for reading or writing. During the parent interview, mom and dad are asked about household discipline, the child’s personality and educational beliefs.

“It’s the child’s juken, but the parents are being watched,” says L. Nakata, a Tokyo mother currently preparing her child for juken who was once a student at Keio Yochisha Elementary School.

Schools assess the overall family dynamic to see if it fits with the institution and its mission statement. It is rumored that the schools watch everything from the moment the family comes into view — from manners and discipline to interaction.

Families then enroll their children in specialized juku according to school and activity. Some have multiple-year waiting lists that require mothers to sign up while a child is still in diapers. Others may require a personal introduction. Starting at age 4, if not sooner, most children attend various lessons every day of the week, with hours of weekly homework.

While it is easy to spend a minimum of ¥2 million on such preparation, most families invest more than ¥3 million for the more competitive schools’ juken. In addition to juku, expenses include the proper clothing and undergarments, shoes, slippers, bags, embroidered handkerchiefs, tissue covers and rainwear in the event of inclement weather. For families with a younger child, child care becomes an added expense.

And, the academic year before the actual exam, families don their juken outfits and attend practice exam and parent interview sessions at the juku.

“On nice Saturdays and Sundays, you should go to the playground and play with the family — that is a happy thing for the child,” says M. Yamanaka, a Tokyo mother who sends her children to Aoyama Gakuin Elementary School. “When I see these children in navy outfits on the weekends, I remember the process and it breaks my heart.”

Kataoka says the pressure is particularly intense in Japan where “the social status of parents is related to their child-rearing and child’s education.”

However, there can be negative fallout for some children. Families begin to modify their child’s upbringing to mold them into what they believe is the ideal student in the eyes of their dream school, according to Kataoka. It is not uncommon to see these 5- and 6-year-old children develop eye twitches or stutters before the exam. As the pressure increases in the household, tempers flare and verbal and physical abuse is possible, according to research conducted by Honda and published in her book, “Bottleneck of Home Education: Mothers Obsessed with Raising Children.”

On the playground, social pressure continues. Parents keep their juken practices secret from competing families in the hopes of increasing their own chances and to protect themselves in the event of failure. They tell their children not to talk about after-school activities with friends. In the final year of preschool, the atmosphere is strange and the air changes.

“During the first two years of preschool, mothers go to lunch and to the playground with their children, but then the competition heats up in the third year,” Yamanaka says. Attitudes and personalities shift and are then slowly normalized after exam results are released.

For those families that attend preschools specifically geared toward elementary school juken, such as Tokyo’s Wakabakai or Mikokoro, and are not accepted anywhere, Nakata says, “You feel displaced and it becomes difficult to continue going to the school.”

In Yamanaka’s opinion, such social competition is unwarranted. A more accurate conclusion would be that the child did not fit the school rather than that one child took the place of another.

A larger implication of this juken process in a culture that values egalitarianism is the start of social stratification, termed “social closure” by Kataoka with similar types of families drawn to private schools. Kataoka’s research shows that higher levels of both a mother’s own educational attainment and a family’s household income directly correlate with juken participation.

“The result is private-school children growing up having contact with only the same homogeneous group of people that share their values, cultural capital and social class from elementary through high school,” Kataoka says.

After the dust has settled, for those families who gained admission, there is a belief that “you are carefree after this,” she adds. Mothers seem to return to their more relaxed selves and let their children run wild — even in public — whereas before they were being reprimanded constantly. For those other families, future educational decisions must be made about how and when to prepare for the next stage of juken.

Ironically, attending a private school at this stage of education has not proven to lead to higher levels of academic ability or career success, according to Honda. It is commonly accepted that juku and the juken process at later stages of schooling are the root of educational success in Japan. Therefore, it is argued that students who enter private elementary schools and are never academically challenged or feel the pressure of studying hard fall behind their counterparts who experience juken as older students.

Japanese parents face difficult choices as they attempt to decide how best to educate their children in a country that no longer guarantees full-time employment upon university graduation. School choice is one way parents are optimizing the academic opportunities available to their children. However, only with 20/20 hindsight will we know which practices have produced top performers.

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