“You got to go through hell before you get to heaven,” Steve Miller sang in 1977. While few young people going through the system in Japan are likely to call high school “paradise,” parents of a certain age with children trying to get into a public high school here might find this lyric running through their heads right about now.

Foreign parents especially could be in for a surprise if they decide to send their child to a public high school in Japan. Getting into a good school is no simple matter, and folks who almost seamlessly transitioned from the local junior high back home to the high school down the road can expect a much different experience for their child here.

While some foreign parents choose international schools (see “International education a triple-A investment in your child’s — and Japan’s — future“) or decide to send their kids to their home countries (“Parents of mixed kids look abroad for high schools“), for many others, Japanese public high schools are the best or only option.

Adolescence — with its universal challenges of puberty, fitting in, developing one’s identity (even tougher for mixed-race kids) and so on — has never been easy. In Japan, add the pressure of having to pass an important high school exam and you have what’s commonly known as juken jigoku: entrance exam hell.

On hearing that 94 percent of students in Japan, according to the education ministry, went on to full-time high schools in 2008, you might be forgiven for thinking that making the step up is no big deal. However, because mandatory education ends after ninth grade in Japan’s 6-3-3 (elementary, junior high, high) school system — the legacy of a decision made by the Japanese and Occupation authorities in 1947 — getting into a good high school here can be a fraught process.

University entrance exams get a lot of attention in the media, but high school exams are also important. The high school a student goes to can help determine what university they will be able to get into if they plan to go on to college. With more than 50 percent of students continuing their education after high school in 2013, many 14- or 15-year-old ninth-graders in Japan face the added pressure of knowing that their test results could affect their future employment options and economic prospects.

“We emphasized the importance of education to my children when they were growing up” says Fumiko Motte, a mother whose three children went to public high school. “Although my kids were not at the top of their classes in junior high, they tried to get into the best high school possible.”

Though it varies by prefecture and city, in most cases a student has only one chance to get into a public high school, where tuition is paid for by the government. If the student fails that test, their options are private school, night school or correspondence school. The high school a young person attends can follow them around for life, and the latter two options do not look great on university applications or resumes. Young people who do not go to high school often join the workforce as unskilled laborers.

Some junior high school teachers ask their students what high school they would like to attend as early as seventh grade, but the process usually begins in earnest at the start of ninth grade, when junior-high students, often accompanied by one or both parents, attend open days, taikusai sports meets and bunkasai culture festivals at several high schools to look for a place that is a good match.

Students work closely with their junior high school teacher, parents and cram school (65 percent of ninth-graders attended a cram school in 2007, ministry figures show) to select an appropriate high school.

High school entrance exams take priority for ninth-graders and most stop participating in club activities in the summer to make time for studying at home and attending cram school.

“My kids were very busy when they went to cram school to prepare for their high school entrance exams,” says Motte. “They complained that they didn’t have time to hang out with friends, and it seemed like they were never home.”

Toshihide Fukushi, who has a nephew going though exam hell, says that things have changed since he was in junior high.

“I went to cram school when I was preparing for high school entrance exams but it was nothing like the situation today,” he says. “It’s amazing how busy my nephew is with cram school — I’ve hardly seen him in the last half a year even though he lives close by. The poor kid is under a lot of stress but he seems to be taking it pretty well.”

Children from low-income households are at a disadvantage when it comes to cram schools because they can be expensive, with kids from wealthier families able to fork out for the best. As exam day approaches, students spend more time at cram school and tuition fees rise.

Takara Araki, a university student, says this piled on extra pressure when she was going through juken jigoku.

“I was worried about all the money my family was paying for cram school. I wanted to do my best and get good scores so I could go to a good high school, and the fact that cram school was so expensive made me even more nervous,” says Araki. “I went to cram school most weeknights after school and often spent the whole day there, sometimes from morning until late at night, and on weekends. I didn’t have time to do anything else.”

Cram schools offer sample tests for public high schools their students are interested in, and they also get a good idea of exams the student can pass with input from their junior high teachers, but there are still difficult choices to be made when choosing a school.

Some students lower their expectations and take exams at schools they can easily get into rather than trying for higher-tier schools where competition is more intense and the possibility of failure is higher. Academically talented students have also been known to choose lower-tier schools in the hope of being top of their class and gaining entrance to a university affiliated with that school.

In Kanagawa Prefecture, many ninth-graders hoping to attend a public school choose a private high school as a back-up in case they fail their public-school exam. They take the private school exam before public high school exams are held in January or February.

While students have to pay a fee to take both public and private school entrance exams, those for private school tests are considerably higher, and some private schools require part of the tuition to be paid in advance too. This is nonrefundable even if the student passes his public school test and doesn’t end up attending the private school.

While some scholarships are available, going to a private school is not an option for most children from poorer families, while students from wealthier backgrounds can choose private schools that virtually guarantee admission to the universities they are associated with.

Next come the public high school exams. In most cases, a student is allowed to take an exam at only one public high school. In Kanagawa, for example, exams are held on the same day, on Feb. 16, making it more or less impossible to attend tests at more than one school.

Shortly before exam day, public schools release the number of students that have applied to take entrance exams, giving students a better idea of their chances. Students who have applied at schools with many exam-takers will be under increased pressure, while those who have applied at schools with fewer takers might be tempted to slack off on their studies.

Admittance to public and private high schools is usually determined by three criteria: the exam, an interview and junior high school grades.

At public high schools in Kanagawa, for example, weighting can vary from 30 percent for the exam, 20 percent for the interview and 50 percent for junior-high grades to 60-20-20 in favor of the test. At many schools, a small number of places may be set aside for students judged solely on their exam and interview, disregarding their junior-high grades.

In some prefectures students with special academic, athletic or artistic talents can be recommended by their teachers to public high schools specializing in those fields, but the numbers are low.

Certainly the student going through exam hell is suffering the most, but his whole family will often be making adjustments. Parents especially may be under a lot of stress, as eating schedules and sleeping hours change to accommodate intense cramming.

Motte says she worried about her children eating properly when they were going though this process.

“I gave my kids rice balls or bread after they came home from school before they went to cram school,” she recalls. “When they got home, sometimes as late as 10 or 11, they were usually famished, and they devoured the dinner I had left on the table for them.”

Major concerns leading up to the day of the exam are health and weather. Exams are held in the middle of winter, at the height of cold and flu season, and a child’s chances could be ruined if they get sick on the day of the test. While some schools allow sick students to take the test in the nurse’s office, this is not a given.

Ads on television at this time of year feature mothers (always mothers) lovingly administering the latest medicines and health aids to their children so they’ll be healthy on the big day.

“Everyone is careful about colds during examination hell, and I was always worried about eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, washing my hands and gargling,” says Araki. “I didn’t want to go to school or cram school sometimes because I was afraid of catching a cold from the other kids.”

Inclement weather, especially snow, that can affect public transportation on the day of the exam is a big worry, and some families book hotel rooms near the school where their child will be taking their test so they can get there if it snows. Again, some schools may delay the exam in exceptional circumstances, but this can’t be taken for granted.

“We paid close attention to the weather report as the day of the entrance exam approached,” Araki says. “When they said it might snow, I was concerned that some of my friends who lived far away from the school might not be able to make it.”

Many complaints are leveled at the high school entrance exam system.

“I think Japan should stop depending solely on the hensachi wagiri kyōsō zuke system of using standardized test scores and school records to determine what high school students attend,” Naoki Ogi, a professor at Hosei University and an expert on Japan’s education system who frequently appears on TV, says on his blog. “Japan should combine junior and senior high school, something that is common in many countries.”

While the government has been making noises about combining junior and senior high schools for over a decade — and some areas are experimenting with the idea — the 6-3-3 system is still the norm.

In December, the Central Council for Education, an advisory panel to the education ministry, criticized the emphasis on entrance exams, saying that “studying for entrance examinations has become the incentive for learning.” They also took aim at the rote memorization that is at the root of entrance exams: “The current system tends to place too much emphasis on memorizing and reproducing information,” the panel said.

“It’s so hard to get into a good high school (that) it seems like the purpose of junior high is preparing for high school exams,” says Fukushi. “I wonder if my nephew learned anything he can use later in life in junior high.”

Many municipalities have attempted reforms to lessen the stresses inherent in the process and make it more equitable, but largely without success, resulting in a system that is constantly in flux and varies from place to place. Education company Benesse has a site outlining the entrance exam systems for public high schools by prefecture at chu.benesse.co.jp/juken (in Japanese).

The current high school entrance exam system does, in many cases — such as in Kanagawa, with a few exceptions — permit students to go to high schools outside their own districts, giving those who don’t live near higher-tier schools the chance to go to a better school farther away.

Teenagers can be annoying and disruptive and they sometimes make poor decisions. But the next time a kid in Japan who looks 14 or 15 years old is acting up and bothering you, perhaps you should give him or her a break. After all, they could be going through examination hell.

Charles Lewis has lived in Japan since 1977, where he has been an editor, writer, teacher, carpenter, fisherman, importer, wholesaler and retailer. He is a father of two sons, one of whom is currently going through juken jigoku in Shonan, Kanagawa Prefecture. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.