On the hidden ideology and morality underlying entrance exams and the study of Japanese literature and literary analysis

Yomiuri Shimbun: The Significance of Japanese as an Examination Subject
—Does It Develop Personality? —
Chiaki Ishihara
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

In Japan, what kind of relationship does Japanese as an entrance exam subject have with Japanese as a school subject?

Japanese entrance exams and Japanese textbooks—the parts of Japan’s compulsory education curriculum that involve the printed word—have a certain degree of similarity. Broadly speaking, both of them are concerned with morality. This is the conclusion I have drawn after analyzing a large quantity of Japanese entrance exams for middle schools and high schools and Japanese textbooks for elementary schools and middle schools.

For example, in questions on novels, students are frequently asked about the feelings of the characters. The novel, however, is a genre that readers are free to interpret as they like, so there are as many different ways to read the feelings of a character as there are readers. Despite this fact, the one correct answer at the testing center is determined by the hidden rule that the morally correct choice is the only correct answer. Thus, Japanese entrance exams do not look at how well students are able to read a novel. Rather, they test the degree to which a student has internalized common sense and his or her ability to adapt to the school space. In other words, Japanese entrance exams favor good boys and girls who adapt themselves easily to studying for exams and need less life guidance.

What about Japanese textbooks? I have about twenty years of experience editing high school Japanese textbooks. What I quickly learned was that, first of all, teaching materials on subjects like violence, sex, new religious movements, the imperial system, discrimination, and physical disabilities are not proposed at editorial meetings, and that, even if they were, such proposals would surely be rejected. This is due to the application of good sense (The Ideology of Japanese Textbooks [Kokugo Kyoukasho no Shisou] Chikuma Shinsho, Oct. 2005). With the avoidance of these dangerous themes, only text that fits within the framework of common sense is allowed to be reproduced in Japanese textbooks. Studying Japanese from such textbooks may successfully turn students into good boys and girls. This is the feature Japanese entrance exams and Japanese textbooks share in common.

Of course, daily classes allow a certain degree of freedom. And the degree of freedom allowed at national and private schools is comparatively higher than that at public schools in Japan. Thus, if you say, “Japanese education is a form of moral education,” people offer counterarguments like, “No, I don’t teach the textbook—I teach with the textbook,” or simply, “You don’t know what it’s like in the field.” But schools also have tests. Are daily class activities reflected in tests, as seen in the following sequence: Japanese textbook → class → test? I am on the Faculty of Education, so many of my students are school teachers, giving me quite a few opportunities to listen to the stories of teachers in the field. The more conscientious the teacher, the more he or she worries about tests that require the choice of one correct answer, as laid out in The Ideology of Japanese Textbooks.

When you talk with students, so many of them make confessions like, “I tried to write good-boy/girl essays” and “I hated myself for writing those good-boy/girl essays.” Teachers and students are not free—even in classes where there is supposed to be a high degree of freedom. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that university classes have escaped these hidden constraints. Who is it, then, that really doesn’t know what it’s like in the field?

The circumstances surrounding university Japanese entrance exams and high school Japanese (Modern Japanese) are slightly different. In high school Japanese, there are many teaching materials on critical essays that prompt students to reconsider themselves and society. As a result, teaching materials with themes like criticism of modernity and criticism of common sense are emphasized. The goal behind this is for students to learn ways of thinking that will help them think for themselves as is commonly said. The university Japanese entrance exams generally share this view, so you rarely see critical essays that affirm the status quo on the exam. Students should keep these basic premises in mind when answering critical essay questions. Around their freshman year, however, the thinking of most university students comes very close to common sense. For example, most of them can only read novels at the level of the way it’s usually interpreted. Instead of dispensing with all their studies for critical essay questions as mere exam-taking techniques, students should carry these ways of thinking with them even after they enter the university.

Questions on novels are particularly tricky, since they often ask about feelings that are not spelled out in the text. It should be noted here that entrance exam questions on novels are not meant to test the personalities of exam-takers. Even in university Japanese entrance exams, these questions are only meant to test whether or not students understand the most common emotional responses in society. This aim, however, is founded on the premise that feelings are the result of certain events and arise in response to events.

How then are words assigned to feelings in a Japanese entrance exam? It helps to think of this problem in the context of the occurrence of a crime.

Imagine that a criminal is caught, and his trial begins. At the trial, the criminal’s motive for committing the crime is relentlessly investigated, based on the supposition that this will help prevent future crimes. The criminal’s motive is explored in court because it is believed that it was not a completely internal affair that had nothing to do with the real world. If the motive was completely internal, it would come under the label of insanity. Thus, the prosecutor delves into the criminal’s past to try to figure out his motive. Here, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between events involving the criminal that occurred in the real world (the cause) and the criminal’s motive (the effect). Society and personal motives are thus interlinked. We can see that people develop motives as a result of causes that originate in the real world, and that they commit crimes as a result of these motives. To state it in simpler terms, a person is hit (cause), becomes angry (motive), and strikes back (effect). Replace motive with feeling, and you get the ideology underlying the formulation of questions on novels in Japanese entrance exams.

Thus, it is common for the multiple-choice answers for questions on novels to combine a summary of the events in the novel in the first half with a description of the character’s feelings regarding those events in the latter half. To figure out the correct answer, students can first check whether or not the summary in the first half of each answer is correct. This will usually narrow down the choices to two answers. Next, the student can narrow down the choices to the ones that describe a common emotional response in society as a feeling. This strategy also usually yields two options. Only one option will include both a correct summary and a common emotional response in society. This is the correct answer.

If the response format is open-ended instead of multiple-choice, exam-takers just need to follow the same ideology discussed above as underlying the formulation of questions on novels in Japanese entrance exams. They can devote the first 70 percent or so of their answer to summarizing events in the novel as causes and the last 30 percent or so to writing about the resulting feelings that arose from these events.

Do these Japanese entrance exams identify human resources who have what it takes to survive the world of tomorrow? The answer is an emphatic no. Of particular concern are exam-takers who can pass the Japanese entrance exam without studying despite their lack of understanding of the ideology underlying the formulation of the questions. Their high social adaptability will only make it more difficult for them to develop a new type of personality. It seems that the students with the type of personality that will successfully survive the future are the ones who objectively see Japanese entrance exams as a rite of passage that tests common sense and have an intellectual understanding of the ideology behind the formulation of questions that allows them to see the big picture. This is the central significance of Japanese entrance exams and, by extension, the central significance of studying for these exams.

If we assume that there will be a demand for new personalities in Japan for the future, the proposal to teach morality as an official subject currently under discussion will result in more serious consequences than those of yutori (relaxed) education. Let us put aside, for the time being, the high likelihood that the content of this morality will be colored by nationalism. The biggest problem is the way morality limits people’s attitudes toward the world to only one choice. It will be difficult for new personalities to arise out of this kind of education. This is the conclusion brought to light by the ideology behind the formulation of Japanese exam questions.


Chiaki Ishihara
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Ishihara was born in 1955. He graduated from the Department of Arts and Literature, Faculty of Arts and Literature, Seijo University; completed the Master program of the Japanese Literature course, Graduate School of Literature, Seijo University; and left the Doctoral Program of it. After working as a full-time lecturer and assistant professor at Toyoko Gakuen Women’s Junior College and associate professor and professor at Faculty of Arts and Literature, Seijo University, he was appointed as a professor at Waseda University in April 2003.

[Major Publications]
Soseki: Turning Things Around [Hantensuru Souseki] (Seidosha, Nov. 1997)
The Secret of How to Reading Comprehension in Middle School Japanese Entrance Exams [Hiden: Chuugaku Nyuushi Kokugo Dokkai Hou] (Shincho Sensho, Mar. 1999)
Soseki’s Semiotics [Souseki no Kigougaku] (Kodansha Sensho Metier, Apr. 1999)
University Japanese Entrance Exams as a Form of Education [Kyouyou to Shite no Daigaku Juken Kokugo] (Chikuma Shinsho, Jul. 2000)
High School Japanese Entrance Exams for An Introduction to Novels [Shousetsu Nyuumon no tame no Koukou Nyuushi Kokugo] (NHK Books, Apr. 2002)
A Seminar on Novels for University Entrance Exams [Daigaku Juken no tame no Shousetsu Kougi] (Chikuma Shinsho, Oct. 2002)
The Text Is Never Wrong [Tekusuto wa Machigawanai] (Chikuma Shobo, Mar. 2004)
Soseki and Three Readers [Souseki to Sannin no Dokusha] (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, Oct. 2004)
High School Japanese Entrance Exams for An Introduction to Critical Essays [Hyouron Nyuumon no tame no Koukou Nyuushi Kokugo] (NHK Books, Mar. 2005)
The Ideology of Japanese Textbooks [Kokugo Kyoukasho no Shisou] (Chikuma Shinsho, Oct. 2005)
What We Were Like One Hundred Years Ago [Hyakunenmae no Watashitachi] (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, Mar. 2007)
The Secret to Japanese Expression Aptitude in University Entrance Exams [Hiden: Daigaku Juken no Kokugo Ryoku] (Jul. 2007)
Solving Riddles: Haruki Murakami [Nazotoki: Murakami Haruki] (Kobunsha Shinsho, Oct. 2007)
The Rules of Middle School Japanese Entrance Exams [Chuugaku Nyuushi Kokugo no Ruuru] (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, Mar. 2008)
“Japan” in Japanese Textbooks [Kokugo Kyoukasho no Naka no “Nihon”] (Chikuma Shinsho, Sep. 2009)
Opening Lines of Masterpieces: From Soseki to Haruki [Meisaku no Kakidashi: Souseki kara Haruki made] (Kobunsha Shinsho, Sep. 2009)
Where Is the Reader? Looking for Ourselves in Books [Dokusha wa Doko ni Iru no ka? Shomotsu no Naka no Watashitachi] (Kawade Books, Oct. 2009)
The Overlooked Masterpiece by That Author [Ano Sakka no Kakureta Meisaku] (PHP Shinsho, Nov. 2009)
How Has Soseki Been Read? [Souseki wa Dou Yomarete Kita ka] (Shincho Sensho, May 2010)
The Culture of Modernity: The Challenges Taken Up by Literature [Kindai to Iu Kyouyou: Bungaku ga Seotta Kadai] (Chikuma Sensho, Jan. 2013)
Rereading Soseki’s Works Using “Kokoro”: The Sensei Who Could Not Grow Up [“Kokoro” de Yominaosu Souseki Bungaku: Otona ni Narenakatta Sensei] (Asahi Bunko, Jun. 2013)
Reading Contemporary Literature as a Form of Education [Kyouyou to Shite Yomu Gendai Bungaku] (Asahi Sensho, Oct. 2013)

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