Toshihiko Takahashi is a busy man. He directs an international exchange program that brings about 130 recent American college graduates to Japan each year to work for the Ministry of Education as consultants to the English-language supervisors in Japan's 47 provinces.
His Tokyo office, not far from the headquarters of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is a place of quiet intensity, where Mr. Takahashi works long hours and keeps himself at the ready to travel across the country on very short notice if one of his consultants needs help. His day is a tangle of meetings, planning sessions, logistics sorting, and problem solving.
Only when he goes home to the suburbs does Mr. Takahashi realize that his schedule could be much, much worse. It could be that of his 10-year-old son, Satoshi.
Like many Japanese youngsters, Satoshi Takahashi is trying to get an early jump on college. So when his father has finally settled down to an evening of television, reading, or conversation, Satoshi is just beginning the third leg of his crowded daily routine.
He will study and prepare homework until almost midnight. Earlier in the day, he attended his regular public school, then shuttled back and forth between home and two additional schools--private supplementary schools called juku--for extra study.
Satoshi's days will run this way until Saturday evening, allowing him little time for daydreaming, television, or the kind of play Americans consider normal for children his age. Then, on Sunday, he will go to yet another special school to compete with several thousand other Tokyo children on various standardized tests. This is not an unusual outing; he does it every Sunday.
In Japan, Satoshi's high score on a weekly standardized test will be as prized by his parents as being elected class president or quarterbacking a good game would be in the United States. Where American education values experience, Japanese education values the accumulation of basic, testable knowledge. And where U.S. colleges, in the admissions process, consider high-school transcripts, recommendations, interviews, and such other non-academic measures of ability as school activities, Japanese colleges and universities base their decisions almost entirely on test scores.
Testing: A National Obsession
The adherence to a testing regimen does not begin or end with the college-admission process. It follows the Japanese student from junior high school, where he knows that high test scores will get him into a better high school; through college, where the prestige value of his test rank has already determined his future; to his career, where testing will also be a means of selection and promotion.
A recent survey by Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan's leading newspapers, and the Gallup organization illustrates the extent of Japan's obsession with test-taking and ranking. When asked to name the skill most valued by their schools, Japanese respondents said "the ability to memorize."
Americans asked the same question said "the ability to communicate.'' When asked the educational factor most important to later success, 72 percent of the Americans polled said "working hard to gain knowledge and experience"; only 29 percent of the Japanese thought that factor was important. The factor the Japanese cited most often was "being the graduate of a prestigious university." Americans chose graduating from such a university as the least important factor in success.
For the Japanese, development of the kinds of special skills and interests important to Americans gives way at an early age to preparation for entrance examinations. Schools--and especially teachers, whose status rises with their classes' success rate on examinations--encourage students to drop out of sports and other extracurricular activities in the 9th and 12th grades to prepare more intensively for the entrance exams to high schools and colleges.
Hurrying, Hurrying to Juku
Satoshi Takahashi started working in earnest to prepare for college in the 4th grade. That year, he was enrolled in three juku and went to supplementary classes seven days a week. Now he attends only two juku five days a week, so that he can devote Tuesdays and Thursdays to study for the special school he attends on Sundays.
The hundreds of Tokyo students enrolled in that Sunday test-preparation school are ranked initially according to how well they scored on the school's own entrance examination. The best students go to the class in the Ochanomizu section of town, the next best go to a class near Waseda University, the third best go to a class in the Ikebukero ward, and so on down the line. Students can then advance to a more competitive group, depending on how well they do on the weekly examinations.
Many parents, particularly the mothers, do all they can to improve their child's standing. Mr. Takahashi says that when Satoshi was promoted on June 1 from a lower-level section to the Ochanomizu class, Mrs. Takahashi presented the boy with a Fujitsu microcomputer, which retails for about $525.
Extra Studies Are Typical
Although not all students work as hard as Satoshi and although few juku go to the extreme of holding weekly examinations, most elementary-school children attend some kind of special study classes after school. Surveys of students in several cities indicate that about 60 percent of all primary-school students enroll in extra enrichment courses, studying such subjects as music, arts, abacus, and calligraphy, and that by the 5th grade about one-fourth of the students are enrolled in serious after-school academic courses.
National studies indicate that about one-quarter of elementary students attend juku or have private tutors and that about 60 percent of middle-school students attend juku or have tutors to help them prepare for the entrance exams of top high schools. At the same time, many students at academic high schools continue to attend juku to prepare for college, and some--less than 10 percent--attend more advanced cram schools called yobiko to prepare for college-entrance exams.
The 214,000 ronin, the students who fail to pass the examinations of national universities, either study at home or attend yobiko in preparation for the repeat exams they will take the next year.
A Big, Competitive Business
Though juku have proliferated mainly because of examination pressures, some of the schools are merely supplemental training grounds, such as those that offer studies in the non-tested subjects of abacus, art, calligraphy, and music. And even those offering advanced training in academic subjects do not necessarily gear their curriculum toward entrance exams. English-language juku, for example, provide valuable practice in English conversation to supplement public-school instruction.
Fine teaching is also an attraction at many juku. Outstanding teachers are often hired on a part-time basis and given free reign to teach whatever and however they please. In the words of one juku director, the supplementary schools are in a "consumer's market," and what retains and attracts students more than advertising is the quality of the teaching.
Several large Japanese companies have developed franchise chains of juku, but the more narrowly focused entrance-test cram schools are usually small home operations set up by former teachers.
Even in relatively quiet neighborhoods, says one juku manager, the cram-school business has become a big and highly competitive cottage industry.
"It's getting to be cutthroat," says Nio Fukushima, the business manager of three juku and yobiko enterprises in the Kyoto-Osaka area, as he walks through a residential section of Osaka near his school. "Five new cram schools have been opened on the same block in the past five years. Teachers are leaving our school to open up schools of their own or to take jobs in the new enterprises."
Even the students are moving around from one school to another, he says, trying to get an edge in the stiff competition to enter Osaka's top high schools and ultimately Japan's most elite colleges.
To keep up with the competition, Mr. Fukushima and his boss have bought a fleet of buses to deliver students to their homes after class. They also have constructed a new school building and launched a vigorous advertising campaign, complete with direct-mail appeals and posters that tout the school's placement results.
Is There Life Without Juku?
Japan's Ministry of Education would prefer a future in which Mr. Fukushima and his competitors were all out of business. Its officials believe the school curriculum in Japan is rigorous and demanding enough and that students do not need to attend juku. In fact, because the ministry was concerned that the regular schools were too rigorous, it decided five years ago to cut 30 percent of the curriculum and 10 percent of the teaching hours in the elementary and junior high schools.
But Japanese who send their children to juku say that a corresponding reduction in the amount of information tested on national university entrance examinations did not follow the curricular changes, and the ministry move merely increased the need for supplemental classes. This is particularly true, they say, in English, where the hours of study in middle school were cut from four per week to three.
"Students used to know about 4,500 English words after senior high school," says one English teacher. "Now they know 3,000." At the same time, however, entrance examinations for the top universities require a knowledge of more than 4,500 vocabulary words, which means that students who want to enter a top-notch school today "must go" to juku, he said.
"Officially, universities take students who complete the approved high-school curriculum," says Tetsuya Kobayashi, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Kyoto University, "but in reality they demand a level of achievement well beyond high-school graduation. Juku fill the gap."
Mr. Kobayashi says the curriculum's inability to meet the needs of especially talented students or of weak students who need special help is another failing that tutors and juku help to rectify.
Inequities in the System
Though the Japanese take pride in being a meritocracy, where all students have a chance to succeed and go to college, the cost of juku and of elite private education does not allow poor children the same opportunities as the sons and daughters of the wealthy.
"The examination system tends to favor wealth," Professor Kobayashi says.
Thomas Rohlen, author of Japan's High Schools, says that between 1961 and 1974, the proportion of students from the poorest two-fifths of the Japanese population who gained admission to prestigious universities dropped from 40 percent to 26 percent. At the same time, the proportion of students from the wealthiest fifth of the population who gained admission increased from 26 percent to 34 percent.
William K. Cummings reports in his book Education and Equality in Japan that the monthly tuition and fees of top private high schools that send a high percentage of their students to top-ranked colleges amounts to about one-fourth of the average family's monthly income.
Signs of Dissatisfaction
Although they argue that juku and supplemental coursework are necessary, the Japanese are not at all happy with the situation. Toshihiko Takahashi, Satoshi's father, is vehemently opposed to a system of supplementary education that takes a large chunk out of his pay (about $200 per month), deprives his son of his play, and provides no "useful knowledge."
Mr. Takahashi wants Satoshi to have more time for fishing and mountain climbing. He believes that all the test taking and memorization is a waste of time. He says, "Juku add nothing. They teach basic concepts. 'This star moves in this direction and the earth revolves in that direction.' But they don't tell why. They provide no reason." As a result, he says, the lessons don't cling in the students' minds. The kind of teaching that is provided is "too easy," and the children, he says, "don't really understand anything afterwards."
'Education Mama' Decides
But Mr. Takahashi, who, like many Japanese men, leaves purchases and educational decisions to his wife, has little say in the matter of education. Mrs. Takahashi, a self-avowed "education mama," says she does not necessarily believe the juku provide essential learning, but she is determined to do anything possible to see that her son has every advantage in the tough competition for the best colleges.
"I don't think the courses are important, but if Satoshi doesn't go he will not go to a reasonably good high school, and then he won't go to a reasonably good university. If it were possible, I wouldn't send him."
She says her goal is not to make her son a rich man but "an ordinary or acceptable person in society, ... someone who will fit in."