Business | YEN FOR LIVING

Prep schools succumbing to more than economic reality

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

In recent weeks the yobiko Yoyogi Seminar announced that it would be closing 20 of its 27 schools nationwide by March of next year. The reason is clear and has been for years: enrollment is dropping with no bottom in sight.

The term “yobiko” is sometimes translated as “cram school” and sometimes as “prep school,” and so they tend to be mixed up with juku, another education-related term translated as “cram school.” Practically speaking there is no real difference, since both forms of enterprise prepare students to take entrance tests for higher institutions of learning. But juku tend to be associated with elementary school and junior high school students, while yobiko are more often attended by high school students who want to get into name universities.

Just as often they are used by high school graduates who are doing the same. Since these grads are not attending a for-credit school at the time, they are referred to as ronin, the word that described masterless samurai in the past. And in a sense it is the loss of ronin that made Yoyogi Seminar realize its future was in jeopardy. This past spring, according to the education ministry, 80,000 ronin took college entrance tests. In 1994, the number was 280,000.

The obvious reason for the loss of ronin is that the so-called “narrow gate” for entering universities has widened over the years. As the birthrate continues to remain low the number of available students has dwindled, and at the same time the number of universities has actually increased, from 552 20 years ago to 781 as of the beginning of this year. Schools, especially those lower on the prestige scale, are desperate for paying students and thus have eased requirements for admission. Some don’t even require tests any more, but accept recommendations or school performance records. And without the entrance testing system most yobiko have no reason to exist.

The business magazine Diamond Online reports that 14 years ago 65.8 percent of all students entering university had taken entrance exams. As of two years ago, the percentage was 56.2. Of the remaining, 34.8 percent got in through recommendations from teachers and others.

But it isn’t just demographics and economics that are undermining the yobiko business. A sea change in expectations of what higher education can accomplish has also taken place. Tokyo Shimbun interviewed a 21-year-old man who passed the test for prestigious Waseda University after being a ronin. He said that when he was in his last year of high school he took tests for five top-brand colleges and didn’t get into any of them, so he felt he “had no choice” but to become a ronin. If he had passed only one, then he would have gone to that school. In fact, if he had been able to get into any of them with a recommendation, he would have done that, too.

The point he was trying to make was that he didn’t want to “work hard” to get into a good school. One yobiko employee told the newspaper that after becoming ronin, many students now lower their expectations because they don’t want to waste their time studying and, more importantly, spending money on prep schools. They just want to get into a school as soon as possible. In addition, more young people want to stay in their home towns and so opt for local universities or junior colleges.

This attitude is considered new. In the past, ronin were characterized as being ambitious, stubborn in their determination to get into a top school, and they would remain ronin as long as it was practically possible, sometimes for years. Now, the feeling is that you should enter college immediately after graduating from high school, and so it is better to try and get into a lower-ranked institution that guarantees entrance rather than a higher-ranked one that might reject you.

This attitude is born of an acknowledgment of reality: Not only is there no longer a guarantee that graduating from a name univeristy will get you a job with a name company, but there is also no guarantee for lifelong employment with any job you secure after college. Why spend all that money and risk all that debt for a future so insecure, especially since it is still considered unseemly, if not downright impossible, for people to return to college later in life?

By that thinking, of course, it follows: Why go to university at all? But there is still a belief that only college graduates can get ahead in the world. Nevertheless, Japan’s matriculation rate to university is relatively low in the world, a little more than 50 percent, whereas in South Korea, which has a comparable education system, it’s over 80 percent.

The whole point of yobiko and juku is to teach what they don’t teach in schools: how to take entrance tests. So as that need decreases, so will enrollment. Moreover, Yoyogi, though the third biggest yobiko in the country, lagged far behind the top two, Sundai Yobiko and Kawai Juku, in terms of the number of its students who got into the University of Tokyo, which is the gold standard for any yobiko.

Cultivating aspirations to Todai was one of the fundamental PR strategies of yobiko and helped create the ronin class, whose loss industry people are lamenting, and not just because of the loss of revenue. (For what it’s worth, Diamond says that Yoyogi can survive easily by renting out the soon-to-be-empty buildings it owns to other businesses)

The editor of one education-related magazine told Diamond that ronin life was an excellent preparation for life in general, since it taught young people the meaning of failure. Nowadays, parents who fret about the entrance-exam system and the related costs try to ensure their kids don’t suffer through it by putting them into private school systems that they can attend right through the end of college. When they finally become “members of society,” i.e., ready to join the work force, they aren’t prepared for the disappointments that will certainly accompany such a life change and often drop out. “Ronin life makes you stronger,” he says.