Students sweat out a spell of high pressure


It’s been strangely quiet lately in the sixth-grade classrooms at my children’s school. When I looked in the other day, nearly half the seats were empty. I couldn’t understand why. A flu epidemic? Then I remembered. It’s juken season — entrance examination time.

Our school has an unusually high percentage of jukensei, students applying for private middle schools. Nearly half of the sixth-graders take the exams, far more than at most other public elementary schools in Japan. Private middle schools hold their exams between mid-January and early February, often on weekdays, so sixth-graders miss a lot of school when they are on the exam circuit.

At most private schools in Japan, students are admitted solely on the basis of their performance in the written entrance exam. Some schools interview applicants, but most don’t bother. Many schools don’t even ask for report-card copies.

A child who takes the exam at an elite school has about a one-in-three chance of passing. If that sounds like a good pass rate, consider that these schools attract only highly qualified and well-prepared applicants. Most jukensei prepare for the exams by attending juku (private cram schools). The juku use extensive pretesting to gauge ability, steering students to schools where they have a very good chance of passing.

Thus, the competition is tough. Exams are graded on a curve, and only students with scores in the top third or so will pass. So most children take the exam for at least one suberidome (“safety” school) at which they feel sure of winning a spot. Others stay in public school if they don’t get into private school, then try again at the high school entrance exams.

Most jukensei take the exams for three or four schools. This is very time-consuming, with exams lasting two or three hours. Add travel time, and they miss a full day of school every time they take an exam — not that anyone worries about this. The exams are considered more important.

It’s not easy to schedule so many exams in one juken season. When choosing schools, families have to make sure exam dates don’t conflict. A few schools are accommodating, offering their exams two or even three times. But most don’t, especially the prestigious schools. And competing schools often hold their exams on the same dates, in effect, preventing students from applying to all of them.

For example, the top private boys’ schools in Tokyo — Azabu, Kaisei and Musashi — all hold their exams on Feb. 1. These schools are colloquially referred to as the Gosanke (the three leading houses) because so many of their graduates get into the University of Tokyo. (In the Edo Period, the gosanke were the three clans designated to provide a successor to the shogun if the Tokugawa family was unable to furnish an heir.) A student aiming for one of these elite schools has to choose between them, because it is impossible to take the exams for more than one.

Taking the exams is expensive, since each school charges a fee of between 20,000 yen and 25,000 yen. It’s not unusual for a family to shell out 100,000 yen just in exam fees.

For schools, administering and grading the exams is a big job. The tests are not multiple-choice and cannot be checked by computer. Students already attending the school are sent home for a few days of vacation so teachers and staff can devote their full attention to getting the exam results out.

I’m amazed at how quickly they do this. Most schools are ready the very next day for the gokaku happyo (announcement of those who passed). Some schools even get the results out the same day.

A few schools have started posting exam results on the Internet, but most schools stick to the traditional form of gokaku happyo. Everyone who took the exam treks back to the school at the appointed time. On a bulletin board in the schoolyard, the school posts the three-digit identification number for all those who passed. The successful ones whoop with joy and pose in front of their numbers for the victory photograph. Those who failed retreat quietly with their disappointed parents.

As you can imagine, the gokaku happyo is an emotional scene. I’d prefer to get the results in a more private way, but this method has been used in Japan for years. Universities do it, too. It’s something of a media tradition to report on the drama at the University of Tokyo’s annual gokaku happyo.

One problem with the exam system is that schools don’t announce their results on the same day. To hold a spot at one school while waiting to take the exam at another is an expensive proposition. Many schools ask successful candidates to commit within a day or two by paying a hefty deposit. This nyugakukin (enrollment fee) is sizable, as much as 490,000 yen, or roughly half a year’s tuition. Some families have no choice but to pay the deposit, then forfeit it if their child is accepted at a better school.

It’s no wonder tensions run high during juken season. My friend Yoshiko says she steers clear of mothers of jukensei during exam season. “If I spot a mother coming down the street toward me, I try to read her face to see how her child did in the exams. But sometimes it’s better to duck into a side street so you don’t have to talk to her,” Yoshiko advises.

What do you say to someone whose child has failed in the entrance exams? Most people say something supportive, like “Ganbatta noni zannen deshita (It’s too bad, given how hard [the child] tried).”

Personally, I hope I won’t need such phrases this juken season. I want to greet all the jukensei we know with, “Gokaku omedeto gozaimasu (Congratulations on your success in the entrance exams!)”