Thursday, January 18, 2007

Exam Madness

As regular as the movements of the fixed stars in their orbits is the annual recurrence of the two- month period known in Japan as Exam Hell. No one particularly enjoys this cruellest season, other than the bursars of the private educational institutions that profit handsomely from this madness, and the cram schools that strive mightily to squeeze a few additional fistfuls of yen from anxious parents. But it remains, even in the dawn of this enlightened 21st century, a rite of passage, a trial to be endured. Though I have resided in Japan for the better part of a decade, I have only recently been granted a glimpse of the holy of holies, the inner sanctum, the vital organs, as it were, of the Japanese business of entrance-exam-based education. Let us now anatomize a few of the systems that permit this structure to perpetuate its anachronistic existence.
In Niigata City, the two month period of Entrance Exam Madness commences in mid-January. By November or December of their final year, junior high school seniors should have chosen the high school, public or private, that they hope to attend. For unlike their previous experience of school enrollment, which was mandatory and determined by moderately flexible attendance zones, enrollment at high school is optional, as well as highly competitive. That is, one could attend a prestigious public elementary or middle school simply on the basis of his address. But with the stakes now much, much higher, it behooves ambitious students (as well as their parents) in their final year of junior high to perform a sort of dervish dance of cram school cramming, interspersed with occasional visits (and monetary donations) to shrines promising entrance exam success, further seasoned, when affordable, with expensive (but, Guaranteed to produce results!) visits by the home tutor, or 家庭教師.
For a fortunate few, the suisen, or recommendation, system permits middle schoolers of pronounced athletic, academic, or artistic ability to pass "Go", as it were, with, for the truly exceptional, the added opportunity to collect $200 as well. For those mere mortals who know their own minds, at least, there is the sengan process, whereby the student places all of his eggs in a single high school basket, and proceeds to watch it. Alternatively, students who would prefer to attend a public high school (admission to the best of which is highly selective and competitive), but who are perhaps less than sanguine about their chances, are well-advised to sit the heigan, or general- admission, exam at a private high school. Having passed the general- admission exam, the student can concentrate his attention on the public- school counterpart, at the same time experiencing a drop in pressure (and motivation?) from knowing that a stand-by is available should he bomb the upcoming test. The entrance exam for public high schools is held the day after the junior high school graduation ceremony. Students sit the exam at the high school they hope to attend, and results are announced within a day or two. Those students who fail but have a private- school option experience only disappointment. Students who have no such option experience some considerable anxiety as well, for their choices are limited to those schools, public as well as private, that have openings remaining. Such students must take the "second-chance" exam, held a few days after the public-school results are anounced.
That such a complex and drawn-out system invites manipulation by private schools should come as no surprise, though the reader may well be shocked by the degree to which this occurs, as illustrated by the following.
Meikun is the prefecture's most popular, as well as prestigious, private high school. Indeed, so many are the applicants each year that the school nearly fills its available slots through the aforementioned sengan system. Nonetheless, a few positions invariably remain unfilled, and those students who are not admitted to the more elite public high schools vie for the few available openings offered through Meikun's "second-chance" exam.
To the directors of Dai-Ichi High School, whose name (Number 1) is belied by its second-class status, this presents an irresistible opportunity, for some of the students hoping for late admission to Meikun would have taken (and passed) Dai-Ichi's general admission exam, just in case their other options should come to naught. By noon of the day of Meikun's "second-chance" exam, and therfore well before the results of the test are known, Dai-Ichi requires non-refundable payment of its admission fees, totalling some $1,500. Those students who are admitted to Meikun through the back door, as it were, and who had already been accepted by Dai-Ichi, can therefore say "sayonara" to their (parents') 200,000 yen.


knnick said...

Would love to find Brian Southwick and hear about his adventures in Japan. Name is Julie Knickerbocker and I'm an old writer friend from the George's Days in La. My email address is I've been gone a long time myself and would love to catch up with Brian as he was someone I greatly admired. Thanks if you can help.

knnick said...

Hmmmm...not sure what I'm to write here but I'm hoping to connect with Brian for a skip down hummous lane, filled with onion rings, cheeseburgers, and blinking Pink Floyd CDs. Somewhere I managed to see pictures of 3 gorgeous kids that someone said belonged to him and I must know more. If you know how to get this message to my old friend please help. Thanks :)

knnick said...

Well shoot, it looks like you were only supposed to write once and not every time the box popped up. I admit it, I'm a doof. Still, I hope to hear something from Brian or someone who can tell me how I can contact him. Unless of course by now, my THIRD post. I'm coming across a little stalkerish.... truthfully I give that up every year for lent, you have to believe me, really. :)