With Japan’s economic bubble long since burst and job security fast becoming no more than a fond memory, there has been a surge in applications to private schools from primary grades up to college.

With parents fearing that the public education system will condemn their offspring to insecure, low-paid work, and competition for private-school places increasingly fierce, juku (cram schools) that help students prepare for entrance exams are experiencing a boom in business.

Big business

While in the West cram schools tend to be remedial, helping students pass exams that they failed, in Japan they are seen as a complement to regular schooling. With over 50,000 juku nationwide, cramming has become a ubiquitous part of the Japanese education system, and grown into a 10 trillion yen business.

The industry is dominated by around 20 major juku chains, the largest of which, Kumon Educational Institute, serves 1.5 million students, while its next-largest competitor, Eikoh, has over 60,000 children enrolled. Besides the big-business players, thousands of medium-size regional juku, and smaller schools, often with just a handful of teachers, bulk out the market.

Just as the scale of juku varies, so do their fees. A sixth-grade elementary school student pays around 35,000 yen to 50,000 yen per month for four hours a day, three or four days a week. A middle school student is charged around 30,000 yen per month for three hours a day, three days a week. Even at Rinkai Seminar, which is billed as having very reasonable fees, a year’s schooling for a sixth-grader costs around 800,000 yen.

The history of juku goes back a long way. The first was established during the Edo Period (1603-1868) as a place to teach academic studies, martial arts and fine arts to adults, but it was not until the 1930s that juku reappeared as a supplement to regular school study. While the number of juku increased rapidly over the following decades, the real surge in their popularity probably started in the 1970s, during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth, when many people found themselves able to spend more on their children’s education.

High fees

According to a 2002 survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 39 percent of public elementary school students, 75 percent of public middle school students, and 38 percent of public high school students attend juku.

More and more parents are now willing, and able, to pay the high fees demanded by cram schools. Toshiko Matsumura, whose 12-year-old son goes to juku four days a week, emphasizes the advantage of private schools. “Nowadays, private schools provide a better environment for studying than public schools,” she said. “Teachers take really good care of students, so there is more chance for academic achievement.”

A typical cram school opens its doors at 5 p.m., with those who attend after-school club activities joining the 7 p.m. class. One lesson is two hours long, with no breaks — a punishing grind for pre-teen kids.

It might be tough going for the children, but parents are often satisfied with the results. Natsue Higashi, who has three children, sent her eldest son, now a university freshman, to juku from the age of 10. “Thanks to juku, my son was able to get into a good public high school,” she says. “Without it, he wouldn’t have made it to university.”

Akiko Shinozaki, a mother of two girls and a boy, has a similar view. “My son went to both private school and juku,” she says. “Now my youngest daughter [14] goes to juku three days a week. It is her decision. She says she can concentrate more at juku than at school.”

Like any other company, a cram school must make a profit to survive. Therefore, the management endeavors to provide service to as many students as possible with the minimum number of teachers. This sometimes leads to problems, such as students of widely differing abilities and levels of motivation ending up in the same class.

Potential problems

Despite potential problems, a lot of students find that teachers at their juku are more animated than those at their regular schools. Kanako Kitamura’s 12-year-old son entered a prestigious boys’ school this April after attending juku for a year. “My son says the teachers at juku were very earnest and cared very much about the students,” she says. “Looking back, spending a total of 800,000 yen in a year seems a lot, but I think it paid off in the end.”

Conventional wisdom has long had it that university entrance exams are the deciding factor in a person’s long-term earning power; in other words, entrance to the right university is thought to pave the way to a secure, well-paid job at a respectable company. But now, this pressure extends further back, with many parents claiming that a person’s future is largely dependent on entry to the right junior high school. As competition to get into prestigious public schools has become tougher, trust in state-run schools has been further eroded due, in part, to the “flexible education” system the government introduced in 2002 which encouraged the expansion of private schools through various tax breaks.

Despite all the hysteria over sending children to the best schools, and the spike in the growth of the juku business, a 2004 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that Japanese students’ math and reading abilities have fallen behind those of their contemporaries from Hong Kong and Korea.

All that frantic studying seems to have done little to improve the real academic performance of students, and questions remain over how healthy the system is for young people.

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