Alice Gordenker on 6th grade ‘exam hell’

Getting into the rat race in middle school
Japan Times Friday, Jan. 11, 2002
My children are back in school after two weeks of winter vacation. We went skiing and took a few day trips around Tokyo, but the boys spent most of their vacation playing, reading and relaxing. Some of their school chums, however, had no break at all. They spent the entire “holiday” studying for middle-school entrance exams.

Take their friend Hiro, a sixth-grader who will take the entrance exams for five middle schools. Hiro is not one to wait until the last minute to study. For several years now, he has attended a juku (private “cram” school) after school and on weekends to prepare for the exams.


But since middle-school exams are held in January and February, winter vacation is the last chance for a big push. Hiro’s parents paid 55,000 yen for a toki koshu (special winter-vacation course), which consisted of eight days of intensive classes. Hiro put in eight-hour days at juku, then went home for dinner — and three or four hours of homework.

Sound like a lot of studying for a 12-year-old? Maybe, but Hiro’s parents didn’t think it was enough. Like many other parents, they forked out an additional 48,000 yen to put Hiro in the juku’s shogatsu tokkun (New Year’s special review). While the rest of Japan took off for the annual New Year’s holiday, Hiro and his classmates went to juku every day for another five days, from 8:30 in the morning to 5:15 in the evening.

Why would anyone put a child through this? And is it really necessary to study so hard to get into middle school?

A little background: By law, Japanese children must receive a minimum of nine years of schooling — six years of primary school and three years of middle school. If this is all done in public schools, it is basically free. High school is not compulsory, but almost all children continue on for three years of high school. Parents pay for high school, although public schools are cheaper than private schools.

Why make the switch to private education for middle school?

The main reason is to avoid the high school entrance exams. Most private schools have both middle and high schools. Since the high school fills most of its places with students from its own middle school, it admits very few new students. Although kids from public middle schools do win a few places at prestigious private high schools, the odds are tough. It’s easier to get in at middle-school level. If a child gets in at middle-school level and does reasonably well, he can stay on for high school without taking another entrance exam. Hiro’s first choice, like a few other private middle schools, is attached to a good private university. Kids who keep their grades up can continue straight into the university without ever taking another entrance exam.

If Hiro can just pass the middle-school entrance exam, he’ll be able to “ride the escalator,” as it’s called, into one of Japan’s best universities. His parents feel this justifies pushing him so hard now. But is it really necessary for a child to study even on New Year’s Day? Are the exams really so difficult?

They are. I just flipped through the last five years of exams for a well-regarded middle school. I didn’t have to pull strings to get copies of the exams; all it took was a trip to the bookstore. Past exams for hundreds of middle schools are put out in book form by private publishers. There is no standardized exam, and each middle school develops its own.

The exams I looked at were hard. They used kanji that aren’t taught in elementary school. They required knowledge of current events. Rote memorization alone wouldn’t get you through these tests — you need to be able to think and extrapolate to answer the questions. In fact, I think the questions were more difficult than anything that appeared on the standardized SAT exam I took when applying to American universities. Harder, too, than anything I studied when I was at a Japanese university.

I understood why you pretty much have to attend a juku to prepare for the exams. The material is far more advanced than what is taught at any elementary school.

This is the “examination hell” that gets so much press coverage outside of Japan. Foreigners may find it shocking, but Japanese are more accepting. They tend to see the exam system as difficult but fair because anyone who works hard can earn a place in a good school.

I asked several kids how they feel about preparing for the exams, expecting to hear major complaints. I was surprised by their answers. It’s hard, they admitted, but juku is fun. The teachers are really good, and the lessons are more interesting and challenging than what they do at school, they said.

Parents, too, tend to be positive. They may have mixed feelings about the exam system and having to push their kids so hard, but they think the experience is good for their kids. They are pleased that their kids learn to work hard, rise to the challenge and master difficult material.

And to put things in perspective, not every Japanese child goes through this. Last year, 20 percent of sixth-graders in Tokyo took middle-school entrance exams. In suburban areas around Tokyo, the figures were lower: 13 percent in Kanagawa, and 9.3 percent in Chiba and Saitama. In the rest of the country, even fewer children take middle-school exams.

Would I put my kids through this “examination hell”? I would not. I believe childhood should be a time for exploration, not intense academic work. I would like to see my kids work really hard someday, but I hope it would be when they are old enough to set their own goals.

However, I’m American and intend for my kids to return to the U.S. education system after elementary school. What would I do if I were Japanese and wanted my kids to go to a Japanese university?

That’s a tough choice that I’m glad I don’t have to make.

This discussion of middle-school entrance exams will continue in the next “Matter of Course” column on Jan. 25.

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