WASHINGTON – For T. S. Eliot, April may have been the cruelest month, but in Japan, there’s no month that’s crueler for students than February. This is the month when students find out whether months or even years of preparation have finally paid off or not.
Kids as young as five years old are confronted with the doubly whammy of prepping for entrance exams and facing family pressure to do well, all in the name of future success. Or in the case of the youngest of test-takers, it’s more about parental ambition than anything that the child may want.
For high schoolers, though, it’s a different story altogether as they grapple with where their academic abilities place them and what that means for their future. The toughest survivors, though, are undoubtedly those who decide to try their luck the following year and defer entry for the upcoming academic year.
There is no real equivalent of the “ronin” student in the United States or the United Kingdom. Named after the samurai without a master who wandered without affiliation and often without hope, Japan’s ronin student of today is one who has graduated from high school but has not been able to get into the college of his or her choice. As a result, the student spends a year or more attending a crammer school in order to retake the entrance exam.
It’s a gamble, since there’s no guarantee of success in passing competitive tests the second time around. It’s also a test of mental endurance, since it requires the student to spend the next 12 months with an uncertain future in a society that values belonging to a group.
The number of ronin students overall have declined over the years as the number of students overall have decreased, making it easier to get into less-competitive schools. Yet the top-tier universities continue to have a large number of students who got in on their second or even third try. In fact, nearly one-third of students who got into the University of Tokyo last year were ronin students.
The University of Kyoto, meanwhile, had an even higher rate with nearly 40 percent of students taking the entrance exam the previous year. Private universities, too, reflect that trend, with nearly 34 percent of those getting accepted into Waseda University’s flagship political science and economics department last year being ronin students.
In a country where reinventing oneself and rebuilding from failure remains a challenge, the ronin student is actually one of the few socially acceptable ways to admit defeat and the students are encouraged to persist in their efforts to try again the following year. Still, for teens who are sensitive to what their peers think and can’t help but compare themselves against others, the ronin path is not an easy choice.
What’s more, some students have been known to be in this limbo state for two or three years before finally getting into their school of choice. Another challenge is that employers may discriminate against those who have spent an extra year or two studying to get into the school of their choice. Then there is the gender bias as well, with male students more likely to be accepted in their ronin state by family and society at large, compared to female students.
It is all too easy to be critical of having a ronin system socially acceptable in the first place. After all, students shouldn’t have to worry about getting into the right school so much and instead be content to go to the school they got into instead. Or if they didn’t get accepted anywhere, they should be able to go to a junior college or a specialized school with their heads held high, and commit to learning at the institution that had accepted them.
One key factor for the ronin phenomenon is that the university hierarchy has remained largely unchanged over the decades, despite the fact that there are fewer students now and more college seats.
The national University of Tokyo, popularly known as Todai, still remains at the top of the academic food chain, followed by Kyoto University, while Waseda and Keio universities continue to be regarded as Japan’s top private schools.
Meanwhile, there is the undeniable fact that the top jobs go to those who graduated from the top schools. So even as the bigger, more globally minded employers have become more flexible about how they recruit new employees and there are more opportunities to be hired as a mid-career professional, that kind of flexibility is more readily available to those who are graduates of the “right” schools than not.
Of course, that’s hardly a Japanese phenomenon. In the United States, for instance, all nine Supreme Court Justices are graduates of Ivy League law schools, while in Britain, 42 of the 55 prime ministers to date went to either Oxford or Cambridge.
Still, not all industries are dominated by Ivy League or Oxbridge graduates, and the brand name of schools tends to eclipse as careers progress and achievements are touted more than academic records.
That is not necessarily the case with Japanese employers, who continue to tout where an employee went to school even three or more decades after graduation.
A ronin student — and the student’s family — is painfully aware of this persisting trend of making much of the school hierarchy and the alumni network, which is particularly strong at the elite universities. Ironically, though, the real strength of the ronin is the ability to tune out the inner voice of self-doubt, not take the easy way out, and not lose sight of the long game by persevering in one’s late teens when other friends may have already gotten into college and enjoying life as an undergraduate.
That is a tough road to take, especially when it is self-imposed. For those who have chosen to take that path this February, the next 12 months will be one of the most challenging in their lives. But their determination to get what they want and their drive to achieve their dreams should be lauded as life skills that would allow them to succeed in the future, wherever they may go for college.
Shihoko Goto is the deputy director for geoeconomics and the senior Northeast Asia associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.