A confusing question on the annual university entrance exam featuring hippopotamus-like creatures and Nordic languages left many Japanese high school students scratching their heads.

The controversial multiple-choice question in the geography section of the National Center Test for University Admissions, which took place over the weekend, asked students to identify the setting and corresponding language spoken by the Moomins, the main characters in a popular series of picture books and comics by Finnish author Tove Jansson. Answers made public after the test gave the correct choice as Finland and Finnish, despite the fact that the setting is never made clear in the stories.

The question quickly gained attention on social media, with many commentators expressing criticism. The outcome of the test is often the most important determinant in the university admissions process, with one incorrect answer having the potential to be the difference between attending university or spending another year preparing for the subsequent year’s test.

A manifestation of the widespread frustration among students could be seen in a hashtag translating to “unforgivable Moomin,” which briefly became a top trending phrase in Japanese Twitter feeds.

“While the Finnish author of the Moomins, Tove Jansson, may have written the stories with a Nordic nature in mind, the whole idea to the story is that it takes place in an imaginary place,” said Markus Kokko, counselor of press and culture at the Finnish Embassy in Tokyo.

A portion of the question, which also included Swedish writing and a corresponding cartoon, drew the additional ire of a team of professors from the Swedish language research center based at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Language and Culture. The team of researchers pointed out what they saw as a number of linguistic and cultural misconceptions overlooked by the makers of the test.

“We want to express our unease about the risks that this question poses to both test-takers and Japanese society,” they wrote in a public letter posted online.

This is not the first time that the examination has come under fire. Responding to criticism pertaining to an over-emphasis on rote learning, exam administrators have in recent years introduced a slate of changes set to be implemented in 2021. The new format will include Japanese composition in addition to English writing and speaking.

Over 580,000 people took the exam in 2018, according to official figures from the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, the independent body that administers the test. The pressure on students is often high, as many spend years preparing for the various sections of the exam, which include social studies, geography, history, Japanese and English. Days before the test, students often make pilgrimages to shrines devoted to scholarship to pray for good fortune.

On Monday afternoon, reflecting the importance of the test in Japanese society and widespread interest in the controversial question, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was asked to respond to the controversy.

“While I am aware of the reports, it is not the position of the government to comment on the test,” Suga replied.

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