Whether because they are bored, driven to absorb as much of life’s wonder as they can, or because they regard certificates as legups on the career pole, many Japanese of all ages are flocking to fonts of knowledge on everything from kanji (Chinese written characters), to shochu (low-class distilled spirits) to movies and aromatherapy.

In particular, the popularity of tests on history, culture, food, local industries and locally famous people has been skyrocketing since the launch of the “Tokyo City Guide Kentei (Tokyo City Guide Test)” in November 2003.

After that — almost before you could name all 29 stations on the capital’s Yamanote loop line — eager learners could avail themselves of the “Hokkaido Kanko Master Kentei (Hokkaido Sightseeing Master Test)” and the rather odd-sounding “Takasakiyama Saru Hakase Kentei (Mount Takasaki Monkey Doctor Test)” in Oita Prefecture or the “Akashi Tako Kentei (Akashi Octopus Test)” in Hyogo Prefecture, to name but a few.

In fact, such open-to-all tests — usually held once a year and often organized by local chambers of commerce or NPOs — are now thought to number 85 nationwide, with 17 more planned for 2007, according to the Advanced Education and IT Institute, a Tokyo-based NPO promoting “Chiiki Kentei (Exams on Localities).”

Among the current selection, “Kyoto Kanko Bunka Kentei (Kyoto Sightseeing and Culture Test),” one of the oldest exams of this kind, and “Edo Bunka Rekishi Kentei (Edo Culture and History Test)” both attracted more than 10,000 examinees last year from across the nation.

But why do so many people like exams so much when they no longer have to do them?

“Because it’s fun,” said Junko Kimura in Kyoto.

Kimura, 57, is one of only 127 people to have passed the top level of the Kyoto test in the past three years, when she did so in December 2005. By now, a total of some 32,000 have sat the exam at its three levels, with 100 multiple-choice questions constituting the second and third levels and essay questions the top-level test.

“I love the exciting feeling I have when I take these tests,” she said. “I took the ‘Shikoku Kanko Kentei (Shikoku Sightseeing Test)’ last December and passed. Then I took the ‘Shinshu Kanko Bunka Kentei (Shinshu Sightseeing and Culture Test)’ in Nagano Prefecture in February, and now I’m waiting for the result. As well, I passed the second level of the Nara test in Nara Prefecture in January, and now I’m preparing for the first-level test which will be held one year from now.”

Kimura may be a so-called test-taking otaku (obsessive), but there is another reason why she took on the challenge of the Kyoto exam and sailed through the top-level category. That’s because she already had a 20-year career as a tour guide in and around Kyoto, and since passing the test she has established herself as a freelance tour guide. As one of the few to have passed the top-level of the Kyoto exam, Kimura said she is now often asked to guide people around special areas of Kyoto that are not included in the regular city tours.

In fact, one of the reasons why local chambers of commerce introduced these tests was to help increase the proficiency of people involved in tourism, such as tour guides and taxi drivers. Consequently, test questions tend to be technical and academic.

Despite her background, Kimura said, she still had to study especially hard about Kyoto’s traditional crafts and artifacts. She said that one of the most difficult questions was one asking for “five achievements brought about to Kyoto by Masanao Makimura (1834-96), the second governor of Kyoto Prefecture.”

If you think that’s abstruse, then even the lowest level of the test still looks tough — especially for non-Kyotoites. What do you make, for example, of: “What does enbanto mean?” (Answer: It means “unfortunately” in Kyoto dialect.)

It sounds . . . very difficult.

Despite that, the Kyoto exam has attracted more than 10,000 examinees each time, which amazed the organizer.

“We didn’t expect that so many people from outside Kyoto would take the test,” said Yuichi Matsui, a spokesman for Kyoto Chamber of Commerce. However, he said it’s hoped that its popularity will boost tourism by increasing the number of “Kyoto fans.”

“When people hear ‘Kyoto,’ they often have stereotyped images such as Kinkakuji Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple. That’s fine; they are famous. But there is much more to Kyoto in terms of culture, customs and history. We wanted people to know about these things through their studying for the test.”

Kyoto is obviously an easy-sell for these tests, but in less vaunted locales it seems it can be harder to enlist examinees.

“Kyoto and Tokyo are the cities which have an established ‘brand image,’ and they can keep attracting people to these tests. But for other localities, it may be more difficult unless they have a very clear purpose,” said Motokuni Ishiguro of the Advanced Education and IT Institute.

As a result, a new type of test that emphasizes local tourist attractions over regional studies has emerged, Ishiguro said. They include that “Akashi Octopus Test,” which asks about the industry and culture in that area famous for its seafood, and the “Sakaiminato Yokai Kentei (Sakaiminato Goblins Test)” in Tottori Prefecture, which tests examinees’ knowledge of hobgoblins in the area where Shigeru Mizuki, a cartoon artist famed for his goblin drawings, was born.

Also, Ishiguro said that the number of multilingual local tests in English, Korean and Chinese will increase this year, and some will be posted on the Web.

“It is actually a unique idea to boost tourism and local economies by branding the name of a place through these tests,” Ishiguro said. “I think we will see more unique local tests this year — as long as people keep enjoying these strange-sounding but interesting ones,” such as exams on goldfish, squid and crabs.

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