It’s that time of year again, when hundreds of thousands of soon-to-be high school graduates are busy taking university entrance exams for the coming academic year. This activity is commonly known as juken (受験), and usually translated into English as “taking an examination.” The translation is somewhat incomplete though, for at least two reasons. First, the type of exam usually referred to is an entrance examination to a school or a university, called nyūgaku shiken (入学試験) or just nyūshi (入試). Though there are countless other exams to which the term could in principle apply, when people say they are jukenchū (受験中, in the middle of juken), they are usually talking about an entrance exam to an educational institution rather than, say, a diploma for mountain climbing or deep-sea diving.

The second reason why “taking an examination” is slightly misleading is that in fact, doing juken is much more than just the act of sitting the exam. While the test itself in most cases won’t take much longer than half a day, doing juken comprises all preparations that need to be done in advance of this day — weeks, months and maybe years even, during which the examinee and his or her family will be living in rather special circumstances. In other words, doing juken can be a whole way of life — and one that is very common in Japan at that.

The importance of juken activities can easily be understood from the ease with which the word combines with other words.

The National Institute of Japanese Language and Linguistics has no less than 109 such compounds in their database. When preparing for an examination, for instance, you are a jukensei (受験生, student preparing for exams) doing juken benkyō (受験勉強, studying for a test). The eligibility requirements for an examination are called juken shikaku (受験資格). If you meet them and get registered, you become a jukensha (受験者, examinee), a candidate for examination. You pay the examination fee or jukenryō (受験料), get your admission ticket, which is called jukenhyō (受験票), and an identification number known as juken bangō (受験番号). Apart from these largely descriptive expressions, there are terms such as juken kyōsō (受験競争, exam competition), juken senō (受験戦争, exam war) and even juken jigoku (受験地獄, exam hell), which suggests that doing juken is not necessarily a trouble-free activity. And that’s true.

One special type of juken is preparations for pre-school children. Instead of sending their kids to the kōritsu (公立, public) primary school, a growing number of parents try to get them into a shiritsu (私立, private) or kokuritsu (国立, national) school — a first important career step in Japan’s “credentialist” society, the so-called gakureki shakai (学歴社会, education-conscious society). For preparation activities at such an early stage, the term juken is usually prefixed with o, making it ojuken (お受験), though you will most likely not find this one in your Japanese-English dictionary.

Doing ojuken is kind of a taboo topic, it seems, particularly for mothers. If they exaggerate their ojuken efforts (or fail to properly conceal them), they run the risk of being stereotyped as a so-called kyōiku mama (教育ママ, a woman obsessed with the education of her children), a Japanese version of Chinese-American “Tiger” mothers. In addition, doing ojuken always comes with a certain chance of failure. To be sure, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with sending your child to an ordinary public school if you intended to do so from the start. It hurts, however, when you had more ambitious aspirations, but ended up suffering zenmetsu (全滅, crushing defeat), meaning that your child failed in all entrance exams he or she took. It hurts even more if the people in the neighborhood know you did.

A couple of years ago I had the chance to get some first-hand experience myself, when we were doing ojuken with our eldest son during his last kindergarten year. We did the whole program, including regular tuition at a local preparation school, or juku (塾, cram school), a juken natsu gasshuku (受験夏合宿, juken summer camp ), various mogi mensetsu (模擬面接, mock interviews) and a nationwide mogishiken (模擬試験, mock exam), not to mention the long hours of daily practice at home on all things that might be relevant juken-teki ni (受験的に, juken-wise), as the people at the juku used to call it.

We did so for only one year, but it was quite an interesting, if costly, experience. We decided against doing any similar experiments with our two other children though, as we could not entirely shake off that rather strange feeling of entering the juken machinery at such an early stage. Also, I couldn’t help wonder if students who have successfully worked their way through the whole of this machinery — from toddler age ojuken straight into one of the top-notch universities in town — are really Japan’s best. Though, to be sure, they are definitely Japan’s best prepared.

Peter Backhaus is the author of 「国際結婚家族のお受験体験記」(“A bicultural family’s experience with doing ojuken”) published by Akashi Shoten.

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