Japan's 'exam hell' now reaches into preschool
Parents seek any advantage as competition heats up despite a lower birthrate.
It's a quiet afternoon in suburban Tokyo as a well-dressed boy and his mother enter Nikken, a cram school for kindergartners and preschoolers. The mother bows to staff, confirms a pickup time, and drives off in her Mercedes as the boy hunkers down at that most iconic of Japanese institutions: the cram school.Skip to next paragraph
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Japan's juken, or "exam hell," has long evoked images of stressed kids competing for slots at top universities in an all-or-nothing exam. But this approach has increasingly moved down the ladder.
Now, in what is known as ojuken, nursery-schoolers are doing worksheets and attending special classes to secure a seat in primary school that their parents hope will ensure their long-term success.
The reasons for the shift are complex. Japan's youth population is declining, and many colleges are scrambling to fill seats – something that should make it easier to get into all but the most exclusive schools.
Instead, many parents are ever more relentlessly seeking competitive advantages, especially as the economic downturn makes competition for jobs more intense. "The low birthrate does seem to be pushing parents to give all they can to the one child," says Makoto Kobari, an associate professor at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto. "It's an act of selective extravagance."
"There's definitely an ojuken craze heating up," says Naoki Ogi, head of the Practical Education Research Institute in Tokyo. But, he adds, "we're talking about a very limited part of society that this is happening in."
No formal data exist on the ojuken population. But the competition for the schools parents are targeting can be fierce: For the class entering Tokyo's Keio Gijuku Yochisha elementary school in 2008, for example, there were 2,468 applicants for 144 spots. In recent years, applicant numbers at Keio have steadily increased, up 10 percent over 2006.
The examination process itself takes place between November and December, with the school year starting in April. But ojuken is a year-round business. At Nikken, most families enroll children for two years and typically spend $22,000 on tuition.
Not surprisingly, parents tend toward the wealthy side, according to Mr. Kobari: Some 56.8 percent earn more than 10 million yen (about $100,000) per year. Most parents are university graduates and 76.5 percent of mothers are full-time housewives.
At Nikken, Kikuko Fukuda speaks quietly but firmly about what children must do to succeed. "We advise families that children need at least a year, coming in a minimum of once a week, to have a shot at passing these exams," she says.
Ms. Fukuda adds that families go to great lengths to pay. "We see families bringing out their six pockets – mom, dad, grandparents from both sides."