By Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi.

Congratulations! You and your child have survived nine years of Japanese compulsory education! Now you must step into the Juken Zone. Note the expression of pity on the neighbors’ faces as they find out your child is quickly approaching entrance exams. Ehh! Juken! Taihen desu ne. (Ahh, entrance exams! Very difficult!) Eventually, like us, you realize that juken really is taihen, but perhaps not for the reasons you first anticipated.

We thought it would be taihen because our children would have to study for so many hours. However, for me, one of the most taihen aspects was narrowing down the list of prospective high schools. So, where do you start? Go to the local bookstore and pick up one of those mile-high high school guidebooks. You may have to pick up two: one for private or shiritsu schools and a different one for public or koritsu schools. If you can’t read it at least your child should be able to thumb though it and start the long process of sorting through them. By the sheer weight of the volumes you’ll realize sorting though them is a daunting task. In Kanto alone there are over 600 high schools to choose from, not to mention other options including international schools, schooling abroad, vocational schools and home schooling.

For those of you who are considering staying in the Japanese system, there are ways to narrow the field. You need to look at what different types of high schools there are, which of those will fill your child’s (and your) needs and desires, and what you can afford.

Shiritsu vs Koritsu

There are basically two main options: public (koritsu or public funded) and private (shiritsu). Though both types will act as a stepping-stone from junior high to college, other than that, they tend to be very different animals, especially in the courting stage.

Public high schools are pretty straightforward. They are basically an extension of the three years of public junior high, but they are ranked and, in some cases, have specialties. The biggest difference between public and private schools can probably be felt in the pocketbook. They tend to be about one-tenth the price of the private schools. (A great reason to go public!) In the Kanto area you can choose from any one of about 50 public schools, but you can only choose one all of the entrance exams are on the same day (footnote 1).

Private high schools (shiritsu) usually have their exams about two weeks earlier than private high schools. They are not all on the same day. Usually you have two days to choose from for the exam (fn 2). The differences grow from there. There is the price tag, which you were already warned about. You should also take into consideration that most, though not all private high schools are actually junior & high schools combined in a six-year program (fn 3). This means that there are often few places open for new students, and that the students your child joins may have been working on a slightly different curriculum from your child. Typically, some subjects are accelerated and some downplayed which subjects depend on the school. When your child takes the entrance exam for a private school he will be tested on knowledge he would have if he had gone through that school’s junior high program (fn 4).

What Do You Want in a High School?

Whether you are going for public or private, there are certain things you want to consider in order to pick out the best school for your child.

Do you want specialized classes? Graded levels of English, foreign languages or emphasis on science and math? Check the curriculum of the schools carefully (fn 5).

Does your child have a love of a particular sport or a desire to join a certain club? Some schools are famous for their prowess in extra-curricular activities and that can be a huge draw for you child. Your child will probably know more than you about this so you can follow their lead. Keep in mind that sports suisen is an option. (See Entry Methodsfor more information.)

Another big factor is location. How early will your child wake up? How long do you want them on the train every day? Is going through busy stations like Shibuya a factor? How difficult is it to get there? Will there be several train changes? Is it a nice neighborhood to walk through with a pleasant atmosphere? Talk to your child about what he/she can reasonably handle. Keep in mind that you may think it is horrible to go to the school twice a year for PTA meetings but your child will happily go and come back, sometimes twice a day!

The facilities available may be another concern. Are there enough playing fields, pools, air-conditioned rooms?

Dress codes, uniforms, strict or relaxed rules, whether it is a coed or an all-boys or all-girls school may also be deciding factors.

What about study abroad programs? There is a wide range of programs, running from a week to an entire year. Some of these programs allow your child to attend a year abroad, come back to Japan and still be able to finish high school in 3 years (fn 6). There may be some stipulations, however. Some schools will only allow your child to participate if you have attended the jr. high. Or they may want a commitment as early as the October of the 3rd year of jr. high, before your child has a chance to test the waters of regular entrance exams (fn 7).

Finally, do you want a university-attached high school (daigaku fuzoku kouko) (fn 8). If your child is planning to go to college in Japan, this may be the route to go. This type of high school gives your child an easy entrance into college and he won’t have to go through this anguish all over again three years down the line. Entrance into these schools tends, therefore, to be more competitive, especially so if there is also an attached jr. high. On the other hand, some parents stay away from these schools on purpose either because they are planning to send their children to college outside Japan, or because they are afraid their child will waste 3 years knowing that they will be able to enter college as long as they have fairly decent grades.

Once you’re determined what is important it will be much easier to whittle down the seemingly endless list of possibilities. If you are still in doubt and running out of time, however, there are two suggestions. The first is to send your child to a juku or cram school. These schools can tutor your child in the extra information he/she (for the sake of brevity, all children will be referred to as he from here on out) will need to pass private high school exams or to hone regular academic skills to bring up their junior high grades. Juku are also are revered as having more information about high schools (even connections・in some cases) and knowing how to interpret that information better than the local junior highs. They may be able to recommend the perfect school for your child (fn 9)

Another suggestion is to join the online resource for private schools called Tokyo Shigaku (or Tokyo Private Schools) at Registration is free and they have up to the minute information on different private schools. They also sponsor a number of high school fairs; the biggest of which is in August at Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho with representatives from over 400 different junior high and high schools under one roof. Granted, the place is a zoo, but if you get there early and have a list of schools you’re interested in getting information from, it is a godsend (fn 10).

A fair like this is also a great place to start courting a private school. The representatives you talk with at the fair will be at the school’s setsumeikai. Though you many not remember them, the representative definitely will remember a gaijin mom!

Entry Methods

There are basically two ways to get into a Japanese high school:
1. Regular entrance exams (r.e.e.), or
2. Suisen or recommended entrance.

Regular entrance exam for private schools, for the most part, test students on three subjects: English, math and Japanese. Therefore these are called sankyoka, or 3-subject, exams. For most of the public schools the exams cover five subjects (gokyoka): English, math, Japanese, science and social studies.

There are three types of recommended entrances: tangan suisen, heigan suisen, and supootsu (sports) suisen. A tangan suisen (often abbreviated to just suisen) is an exam for your child’s first choice school. Though it is possible to do this for two schools, one private and one public. The private exam will come first, then the suisen exams for public schools.

To apply for a (tangan) suisen your child will first need to receive a certain number of points on his third year, second semester report card a very important report card. Each school sets the minimum number of points required for students to have in order to apply for their suisen (fn 11). Waseda and Keio high schools, for example, require students have 38 points before they can apply for the suisen entrance. If your child gets all 5s, then for the nine subjects, they will have a total of 45 points and could apply to any high schools that have suisen.

Second, your child needs his teacher and the school to recommend them. If your child has the grades, they probably also have the school’s support, but these things do not necessarily go hand in hand. You will need to discuss the possibility of a suisen with your child’s teacher during one of the sanshamendan or student-parent-teacher interviews. They will contact the school for you to apply for suisen and have teachers and the principal fill out the necessary papers.

Even when your child gets both the grades and the recommendation, the teacher will still probably ask you if you really want to do this. The chances of your child getting in through suisen are small. (Of the 20-plus kids who tried from my son’s school in the class of 2002, not one was accepted.) Your child is putting everything on the line, his academic ability is tested and his personality and talents are examined through interviews. If he doesn’t get in it is a shock, and it takes great mental maturity to pick up the pieces and get back into studying for regular exams. Personally, as long as your child knows it is a long shot, I think it’s worth the try. Your child will secure a place at least two or three weeks ahead of students taking the recommended entrance exam. (A very long period in the life of a jukensei and their parents!). Another plus, these suisen exams are not as long as the regular ones. Often the interview and the PR card are the most important points.

If your child applies to a school through suisen, you essentially are making a verbal contract with both their school of choice and your child’s junior high. By applying for this type of entrance you are saying that if your child gets in, he will go there. You are asking the junior high teachers to write recommendations affirming that this is his first choice and that he’s a great student the high school will be happy to have him. Declining a suisen would not only give your child’s junior high a bad reputation, but the high school will probably not accept any suisen students from your child’s school for the next several years. If your child is accepted, they must go to the school. If your child is not accepted and they still want to go there, they can try to get in again through the regular entrance exam a couple of weeks later (fn 12).

Heigan suisen a gift from the god of high schools! Every child, if possible, should have a heigan suisen school. This will act as your child’s safety-net. Only available at private schools that are at a level well within your child’s capabilities (fn 13), the heigan suisen is like a regular entrance exam, except that you can postpone paying any entrance fees until after public school entrance exam results have been posted (about the beginning of March). These suisen allow your child to have a secured place while they try for a higher-level school, private and/or public. Like the tangan suisen, this too is arranged through your child’s homeroom teacher who will contact the school to get your child personally accepted. Once accepted, your child is basically guaranteed a place as schools that offer this program see the heigan students as higher level of students than the majority of students they expect to apply.

Sports suisen (or a specialty suisen) is the third type of suisen. Children who are outstanding athletes (or have some other original talent or desire) are scouted by high schools. If your child has a unique point and wants to go to a particular school, talk to that school and/or your child’s homeroom teacher about a sports (or other) suisen (fn 14 15).

The Teacher’s Role

What help can you expect from your child’s teacher and the school? Well, probably not as much as you would like, and more than they want to give. I think that being a homeroom teacher of 3rd year junior high students is a miserable, thankless job. The homeroom teacher is responsible for helping every child find a high school by acting as a sounding board, filling out numerous forms (the more schools you apply to the more forms) and acting as a go-between between your child and the high schools. However, every year the rules for applying to high schools change and usually one teacher from each junior high is responsible for attending a myriad of meetings to find out about the new rules and then to pass them on to other teachers, students and finally, to you, the parents.

Your child’s junior high will conduct several very important PTA meetings at the beginning of the 3rd year, where, for a change, every parent is listening and even taking notes! You can also expect one or two sanshamendan, and you’re encouraged to schedule more if you want. There are questionnaires that the school will send home to get you and your child thinking about possible schools. Also, your child will visit one high school during class time with a group from his class. (Although this merely eliminated one of the 500 schools for us, it also got my son thinking about what he does want in a school.)

If you ask a teacher a direct question, such as, where should my child go to high school? Or, do you think my child can get into this school? … you can be sure that you won’t get a direct answer.

Some Surprising Things We Learned Along The Way

There is no transferring to another high school. If you change schools you start all over again from the 1st year. It’s not done often since it is so costly, but on the other hand, it is not that unusual, either.

The Power of English. It has been our experience that a strong showing in English ability will open doors for your child. Taking the STEP exams in jr. high and getting pre-2nd level or higher can look very good on a PR card.

Your husband isn’t the expert he thinks he is. What happened 30 years ago when your husband was going through this has very little to do with today’s reality. The top schools of yore are today’s middling schools and vice versa. You may very well be the expert in the family.

This is a time consuming process. Block off weekends in the fall of your child’s third year so you can go to the setsumeikai and see the schools.

Your child may show no interest in high school up to the bitter end. The pressure is intense and burying their heads in some alternate life path is a possibility (fn 16).

After thumbing through the mile-high bible of high schools, we found ourselves not using them and instead settled on two or three schools that we knew about from friends, neighbors and sempai.

Having only one school as your goal can lead to disaster. If your child is aiming for a top-level school and only that school will do, if he doesn’t make it in, there is disappointment all around that is difficult to move beyond. In the end remember that there are good and bad points to every school.

There are very few high school ronin (students that delay high school entrance). Though we often hear of college ronin, few students wait a year to get into their first choice high school. Most make do with what they get into, or change after the first year.

In Japan the student’s high school will follow him forever on his resume and job applications.

And, some how or other, even though you may not intend to take this process seriously, it takes its toll on the family as you feel obligated not too have too much fun while your child (hopefully) studies.

Must-Know Terminology

bunkasai – cultural festival – visit these to get an idea of what the student body is like.
chosasho – a questionnaire filled out by your child’s teacher that is taken by your child to the high school.
daigaku fuzoku kouko – a university that has an attached high school allowing easy entrance to the university for students of that high school.
ganshou – entrance exam application
gokyouka – five-subject test (Math, Japanese, English, science, social studies)
heigan suisen – recommended entrance in which the school will hold an opening for your child while he/she tries for a higher level or public school entrance
hensachi – a mysterious number purportedly to have great meaning that we have worked around but still don’t quite get. A hensachi basically tells you the level of the students in the high school. The maximum is 80 and the minimum is 20.
ippan nyushi – regular entrance
jikou P.R. card – a card filled out by your child that tells about all the things your child has done while in junior high in and out of school.
juken – the process of taking entrance exams
jukensei – a student who will take entrance exams this scholastic year.
juku – a cram school or after-school private tutoring institution.
kikokushijo – returnees, students who have lived aboard
kobetsusodan – A personal consultation with high school representatives who will coach your child on the best way to pass the entrance exam to their school. Tips might include how to dress, which grades to pull up, attitude. Very informal. You may want to have a copy of your child’s latest report card with you.
kouritsu – public (funded) school
naishinsho – confidential report prepared by your child’s school and sent directly to the school you池e applying to
nijishiken – a second sitting for a school’s entrance exam, usually only offered at lower ranked high schools.
nyushi – (nyuugakushiken) – entrance exam (the exam itself)
ronin – students are determined to get into a certain school and take a year (sometimes more) to study for that school’s entrance exams.
sanjishiken – a third sitting for a school’s entrance exam, only offered at lower ranked high schools.
sankyouka – three subject test (math, Japanese, English)
sansha mendan – Parent, teacher, student conference
seiseki – grades
sempai – people (students/parents) who have experienced something before you or your child. You will be a sempai for the mothers of younger children once you have gone through this.
setsumeikai – a meeting to explain something. The jr. high will have these to explain high school entrance procedures, and the high schools will have these to talk about what they offer and their entrance procedures.
shiritsu – private school
STEP exam (also know as shiken – an exam that ranks your child’s level of English comprehension in reading, listening, speaking and writing (at pre-1 and 1 levels). You must choose which level to take. (Check out study guides for different levels at a bookstore to get an idea of difficulty.)
suberidome – a lower level school that is a sure thing (you hope)
suisen nyushi – recommended entrance
takienjyugyo – jr. high students can try out a class at the prospective school. Counts for extra points if you actually take the entrance exam.
TOEIC – an exam to numerically rank your child’s English. One exam for everyone, though it does tend to be difficult. Some high schools request this for suisen students.
toritsu – city (funded) school
undokai – sports festival

Tentative Schedule

Any time from the second year of jr. high through the summer of the third year:
Participate in taikenjugyou, setsumeikai, kobetsusodan
Visit undokai, and bunkasai of prospective schools
Courting period for sports (special) suisen

October, November (of your child’s third year):
Try to narrow your choices to 3 – 4 schools
Decisions made on sports (special) suisen

Final grades for 2nd semester – G.P.A. determines which schools you can attempt
Deadline for papers to be filled out by the school

Students take gansho on particular day to particular schools
Tangan suisen tests for shiritsu
Tangan suisen tests for koritsu

Regular entrance exams for shiritsu
Heigan suisen for shiritsu
Regular entrance exams for kouritsu

Results for kouritsu regular entrance exams

The Bottom Line

If your child tries and still does not have a high school at the beginning of March, check the newspapers, the online Tokyo Shigaku site and high schools to find out about nijishiken and sanjishiken. Also look into high schools that have programs at night. They may not be desirable to most, which means they are usually less competitive and easier to get into. He will get in somewhere!

As you approach the end of the third year your child will very likely not study at all, although he may pretend to. He will be getting lots of information from his “friends”, much of which is erroneous but which will send him close to the cliff of despair. He will be teeming with extra energy since clubs are cancelled for third year students after the first term so students can study. (Ha!) Or, alternatively, he will become depressed and spend a large portion of time sleeping (aka “studying”). No matter how he reacts, the bottom line is that your child can get into Japanese high school if that is what you and he want, and that where he goes and how he gets in is as individual as each child.

1 You can choose two schools if your child chooses one for a recommendation entrance exam or suisen (as it is hereafter referred to) and a different one for the regular entrance exam. If your child changes their mind or loses confidence after the suisen you can lower your sights and try for a school he or she can enter more easily.
2 Private high schools tend to have more exam days. The first exam will be about February 10. This is the exam your child must take if this is his first choice school. If spaces are not filled (i.e., students who got in opt not to go there) a second exam will be given. Lower ranking schools have three or four exam days hoping to pick up students who aimed a little to high.
3 My Japanese neighbors warned that I should put my boys into a private combination jr. high/high school because they will study for parents at the end of elementary school but not at the end of jr. high. It may be true! But the local school was close, supposedly good, and cheap. I also liked that all the kids’ friends were nearby.
4 Books with sample exams designed for (or from?) each private high school can be purchased at your local bookstore. Another option is to go the juku or cram school route. They have special courses for private high school exam prep.
5 We wanted an SAT-prep course and a French course, which are both offered at Toritsu Kokusai HS. We didn’t find out until later that they’re offered at the same time, making it impossible to take both.
6 One school that offers this program is Shukutoku High School. Not only did my son have a wonderful time, but his English skills and perhaps even more importantly his self-esteem improved dramatically, 2 My Japanese neighbors warned that I should put my boys into a private combination jr. high/high school because they will study for parents at the end of elementary school but not at the end of jr. high. It may be true! But the local school was close, supposedly good, and cheap. I also liked that all the kids・friends were nearby.
7 This was actually a big selling point to my exam-shy 15 year old. He was completely confident going off to another country for an entire year but the thought of taking exam after exam left him quaking in his loafers.
8 Most of the famous private universities have attached high schools including Keio, Waseda, and Hosei.
9 Some people swear by their juku, but others find them lacking. Juku seem to of the most help if you are interested in a fairly ordinary high school. When you start looking for specialty schools or your child has talents you want to continue developing through the high school, juku tend to lack information.
10 My older son waited until October to really start choosing a school and then didn’t know where to begin. We started with the 2nd biggest fair at Sunshine Bldg. in Ikebukuro. It was great! It helped us eliminate a half dozen schools, introduced us to schools we hadn’t thought of and gave us an opportunity to get all kinds of info (catalogs are free). Many schools gave out free pens which made it worthwhile for my son! And there was all the free Pocari Sweat we could drink! Warning – it does get very crowded, so go early. Prioritize the schools you need/want info on. The lines get long and the adventure becomes boring quickly. My younger son refused my company and went with his friends so he didn’t have much time to get the info he wanted, but he did get lots of pens!
11 Not all schools have suisen, including International Christian University High School (ICU HS).
12 If your child does not get in through suisen and takes the r.e.e., he must still go to his suisen high school if he gets in. As he applied to the school as his first choice, he will be given preference on entrance into the school over non-first-choice students.
13 Schools that offer heigan suisen tend to be middle to lower range private schools. Once you find a school you’re interested in that has a heigan, then you need to make sure that the date of their entrance exam is on a different day than your first choice school.
14 Sports suisen are determined earlier than any other kind of entrance. Usually they are set by Nov. or early Dec.
15 My son is good at basketball and was invited to practice at his sempai’s high school. Subsequently, my son was told by that high school’s coach that he could go to that school as a sports suisen if he wanted, but the offer was only good until the beginning of December – just before the important 3rd year, 2nd term grades came out. There would be no entrance exam at all, but he would have to study in the sports course. This meant that he would have significantly less class time and basketball for all but a handful of days during the year. To him it sounded wonderful – all that basketball! However, I discouraged him from accepting. He dreams about going to college in the U.S., but how could he do that if he didn’t have any time or energy to study? What would he do at a school he chose only because of the basketball if he got injured? Ultimately, he passed on the sports suisen, but we will never know if it was the right choice. (As I see him suffering the anguish of full-blown r.e.e.s there is a part of me that wishes we’d accepted.)
16 My older son wanted to become an igo professional and not attend high school. In the end I got him to go to high school on a temporary basis while pursuing igo. If he didn’t like high school, we made a deal that he could drop out after the first year. He loved it. (Toritsu Kokusai HS)

Copyright 2005, Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi
Reproduced here with permission.

Internet Articles / Essays

The Way We Are: Photo Essays of High School Students in Japan presents photo essays of high school students’ lives from the prizewinning works of the annual Lives of Japanese High School Students: Photo and Message contest. The contest seeks to convey what today’s Japanese high school students are thinking and the lives that they lead.

Daily Life in Japanese High Schools by Marcia L. Johnson and Jeffrey R. Johnson (October 1996) Insights on high school life from two Americans who have lived and taught in Japan. The article may also be read here

Profile of a SELHI (English Language High School). Ikeda Senior High School See sample curriculum

A pictorial account of life at Shizuoka Prefectural Hamamatsu High School

Family Influences on Adolescent Development and School Participation, a very enlightening account of parental practices and attitudes towards the teen children’s school life and schoolwork.

Japanese high school students are less willing to study than their U.S. and Chinese counterparts, according to a recent March 2005 poll of U.S., Japanese, and Chinese students. and other periodicals. Among about 1,300 Japanese high school students polled in 11 prefectures, 73 percent said they often sleep or are unfocused during class, compared with 49 percent of U.S. and 29 percent of Chinese students. Results also indicated that more than 80 percent of students polled in the U.S. and China said they do homework, compared with 53 percent of Japanese students; and that 45 percent of Japanese students said they rarely study outside school, compared with 15 percent in the U.S. and 8 percent of students polled in China – Japan Times. 

Experience High School Life in Kobe, Japan offers a virtual tour of Akatsukayama High School in Kobe and a peek at school life
URL: http:// kobe-city/ information/ education/ akatsuka/ home.html (This site has been moved, we are trying to update its new URL)

Directory Listings

Global maintains an updated listing of high schools in Japan.

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