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.
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."
The school's counsel reaches beyond the merely academic. In one corner of a classroom are enlarged photos of "winning" suits mothers wore to elementary school interviews and the names of the schools where their children were accepted. The mothers and children are clad in dark-colored garb, with what look like black Italian handbags and matching shoes. Fukuda says that many families custom order their suits so they won't look identical.
Hanako Yamashita, who is a paralegal, enrolled her daughter in an exclusive prep class that accepts students only through referrals. The girl enrolled before turning 3 and has spent a couple of hours every Saturday at the class for the past year.
Mrs. Yamashita's daughter, now 4, shakes her head when asked if she thought the exams were intimidating. "The snacks [my Saturday teacher gave us] were yummy," she says with a smile. "The classes were fun." And she got into Denenchofu Futaba Gakuen, the school of her choice – joining her older sister, a fourth-grader, as school opens this month.
To Yamashita, it was a huge relief – especially given the numbers of students applying. "Compared with three years ago with my older daughter, it felt like there were a lot more parents competing for a spot," she says. Her reasoning for the early start: By applying to a school that feeds into the next level, she spared her children having to take the "much more brutal" middle-school exams.
Education professor Hidenori Fujita, of the International Christian University in Tokyo, points to another factor: middle-class parents trying to move their children up by way of schools for the rich. Still another is the popular perception of public schools. Concerns have risen about school violence, bullying, truancy, and juvenile crimes. Officials cut school hours about seven years ago to reduce stress. But half of private schools did not go along, boosting their popularity, Mr. Fujita says. The government has since decided to reverse course and increase public school hours by 2011.
But problems such as bullying have persisted. "In reality, private schools being better and safer is a myth," says Fujita, "but that's how it's been playing out."
Mr. Ogi speculates that many parents who choose ojuken have experienced a setback, such as not getting into the university of their dreams. "Parents are hoping to resolve their broken dream through their child," he says.
Yasuyoshi Kuno, a representative of Kogumakai, another popular Tokyo cram school, says the ojuken boom stems from Japan's play-based early education policy.
"[Supplemental] learning programs for the preschool set are big business," Mr. Kuno said. "This is in part because parents don't think Japan's play-based kindergarten and nursery school programs are doing enough."
Akiko Kawamoto, a housewife who went through the ojuken process with her now fourth-grade and sixth-grade boys, says it was worth it.
Both her sons did worksheets that, if piled up, would reach their height, she says. Ms. Kawamoto plunked down some $2,000 on workbooks alone. She knows mothers who bought home copying machines because of the volume of assignments.
"A lot of families around us – mothers and children – were stressed out," and it showed physically, says Kawamoto, whose children now attend an elite elementary school. "I'm glad it's over for us."