"Rite Of Passage": The Japanese Entrance Examination System
Ever since the devastation suffered by Japan in World War II, the Japanese people have wrestled their way to the top—reigning as one of the chief economic powers in the world today. One of the greatest driving forces behind this postwar surge is Japan's national educational system, a system that has garnered the admiration of some and the wrath of others. Whatever one's opinion of the educational system, it has helped Japan to achieve one of the highest literacy levels of any country in the world. The inability to read and write is almost nonexistent, as the Japanese literacy level is generally considered to hover above 99 percent.1 However, as with most highly-touted institutions, the Japanese educational system has its quirks and imperfections. Although it succeeds in educating the general mass of Japanese people, the system drives many to despair and frustration every year when entrance examinations grab the nation's attention during February and March. This "rigid process of endless examinations funnel[s] the best students to the pinnacle of educational accomplishment. . ." but does not allow for the less-fortunate students to achieve a similar measure of success.2 Not gaining acceptance to a prestigious university places a major roadblock in a student's attempt to later enter the higher echelon of Japan's economic structure. Reiko Kitamura, a nine-year-old student from Tokyo, for example, has already found herself strapped to the demands of the exam system. As a fourth grader, Reiko has already decided she wants to be a doctor—"like my father." She is not simply expressing a vague dream, like many youngsters in America who eagerly announce that they want to be doctors, firefighters, professional athletes, and the like. She knows that her intensive studies must begin now if she hopes to be accepted into one of the best universities nine or ten years down the road. Consequently, she has asked "to enroll in a .iuku [a school, in addition to regular classes, which provides examination drilling] to help her prepare for the junior high school entrance exams she'll take in two years."3 To gain an appreciation for the situation in Japan regarding entrance examinations, I will begin with a discussion of the history and structure of Japan's educational system, and how entrance exams play a part in that system. Then, after providing a brief explanation of how the entrance exam system functions, I will delve into specific characteristics created by exam mania.