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'Examination Hell'

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Four years ago, 18-year-old Takehisa Kishimoto seemed virtually assured of success in life. He had just graduated from La Salle High School, a famous private school in the city of Kagoshima that annually places almost half of its class of 270 seniors in Japan's elite universities.

But it was only this year, after a grueling, three-year odyssey through an academic netherworld, that Takehisa, now 22, finally became a freshman majoring in economics at Kyoto University.

Takehisa's story is one of pressure--pressure to keep pace with talented classmates, to satisfy demanding test-conscious teachers, to keep from disappointing his father, a Kyoto textile-factory manager with high hopes and family finances invested in his son's future. Most of all, it is a story of test pressure, the over-arching imperative to score well enough to enter the best institutions of higher learning.

Because he did not score well enough, Takehisa joined the burgeoning ranks of the country's "masterless samurai," the ronin. Now estimated to number about a quarter of a million, the ronin are a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon, academic achievers who prefer failure to success at less than the highest level. Unable to gain entry to the prestigious colleges of their choice, the ronin shun the many others they could enter, opting instead to spend an extra year--or as long as it takes--studying to make the grade for success.

The Sine Qua Non

Admission to college has become the sine qua non of modern Japanese life. Much of what happens before is preparation for it, most of what happens later is a result of it. Being accepted by the right university can virtually assure success in government or business. Being turned down by the elite handful of universities that dominate Japanese society can derail a promising future and crush family dreams.

But Takehisa Kishimoto's struggle to enter such a university is also a symptom of what many call Japan's most vexing educational problem: the increasing reliance on examinations to track students through the system and, by extension, to structure society. It is a multi-dimensional problem, affecting not only equality of opportunity, but also how and what students learn, and whether or not the system will be able to adapt to meet new needs.

It is also a problem that reform-minded educators say will not yield easily to workable solutions.

Screening the Seniors

Despite recent attempts to give the more subtle indexes of talent and potential a greater weight in admissions, the selection process for colleges remains impersonal and tightly structured. Every January, high-school seniors take the national Joint Achievement Test simultaneously at various locations throughout the country. These results provide a first-stage screening of applicants for the public colleges and universities, among them the highly selective "national universities" considered the nation's best.

Students scoring high enough on this massive, five-part assessment of general knowledge then go to the second stage of selection: two full days devoted to the exhaustive tests prepared by the colleges they want to enter.

Before they have even gotten to the Joint Achievement Test, however, those intent on entering prestige colleges have usually had a steady diet of test competition, vying with one another for places in the "elite" private kindergartens, the commercial after-school cram schools (juku and yobiko), and the top-flight high schools that can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure on college entrance exams.

Now, both educators and the public at large are wondering what that kind of pressure is doing to their children.

'There Was Pressure Everywhere'

Takehisa Kishimoto says he almost welcomed his ronin years as time to "recover" from a high-school experience he says left him "psychologically damaged."

"They expected me to be a study machine, not a human being," he complains. "There was pressure everywhere--at home and at school. I had nowhere to escape. Sometimes, I would just ride my bicycle all day and keep away from classes."

Expected to score high enough to enter Tokyo University, the surest staging area for social prominence, Takehisa found instead that he was not psychologically ready for examination day when it arrived. And in the following ronin year, he was still reeling from exam pressure. "I had no appetite for study," he says.

A bright and talented student with excellent high-school training, Takehisa failed in two attempts to pass the university's entrance examinations. (Competition is so keen for Tokyo's arduous, five-part test that the usual cut-off point for successful applicants is a score of 920 out of a possible 1,000.)

Trying to salvage something academically, Takehisa suffered a third disappointment. He enrolled in a not-so-prestigious, but very expensive, college in Osaka, only to find it less intellectually stimulating than high school.

Finally, he decided to drop out again and study for one last attempt at passing the entrance exam of an elite institution. This time, he picked Kyoto University, passed its test, and was accepted last year.

Etsuko: A Different Story

What made Takehisa's long struggle all the more painful, he says, was wondering whether his expensive and rigorous training at the private high-school in Kagoshima had been worth it. His older sister, Etsuko, had enjoyed herself in school--and gained admission to college--while attending Rakuhoku High School, which is situated across the street from her home.

Rakuhoku is a rarity in Japanese education: a neighborhood high school. Most of the country's prefectures (governmental units like provinces) have high schools that are either formally or informally ranked according to academic quality, with the better students going to the better schools. But the Kyoto prefecture, because of a liberal political heritage that includes a long period of leadership by Japan's Communist Party and a strong local union movement, de-emphasizes competition. Students attend the high schools nearest their homes. (See accompanying story on page 15.)

At Rakuhoku, Etsuko attended classes with weak as well as academically able students. Her teachers put little stress on entrance-examination preparation. But although she says it took a lot of independent studying to get into college, Etsuko thinks she benefited in other ways from her high-school experience.

Many of her classmates were preparing to become clerks in Kyoto's commercial district, she says. "I made a lot of friends I would not have come in contact with if we had been separated by ability."

Equality: Theory vs. Practice

That Etsuko's high-school experience differed from her brother's, however, illustrates the role social factors play in influencing the kind and level of education available to a Japanese child. Theoretically, the single-track system imposed by postwar reforms assured equality of educational opportunity in Japan. But in reality equality gives way at the secondary-school level.

Beyond compulsory schooling--which ends after the 9th grade--who a student is, where he lives, and how much his parents can afford to spend for private schools and tutoring often mean the difference in whether or not he reaches the freshman class of a top college.

Many Japanese would argue, for example, that living in Kyoto, with its reduced-stress neighborhood high schools, put Etsuko at a disadvantage in the entrance-examination race. A more rank-conscious system, where she was forced to compete daily with superior students, would better have served Etsuko's ambition, they would say.

Had she lived in one of Japan's remote rural areas, Etsuko's chances of going to college--any college--would have been even worse. Fewer than one in five of the high-school students in these poor and isolated districts go to college. (There, Japanese educators point out, as in rural areas of the United States, traditions of family farming coupled with differing attitudes toward money and success isolate the populace to a great degree from the education pressures of urban Japan.)

Statistically, being female is also a disadvantage for a Japanese student, but Etsuko fortunately is unusually motivated. Unlike most Japanese women, she applied to a good four-year college and was accepted. Later, she studied abroad.

Even the education-conscious Kishimoto family followed the traditional pattern of putting its private-school money on Takehisa. College enrollment figures show clearly the educational bias toward sons: the elite universities are more than 90-percent male; the junior colleges are more than 90-percent female. (Part three of this series will examine the role of women in Japanese education.)

'Examination Hell'

The multi-layered stress that vying for college admission exerts on students and their families has slipped into the vernacular as shiken jigoku, "examination hell." But, ironically, going to college in Japan is not actually that difficult.

"There is enough space in Japanese colleges to accommodate all students," claims Kyoto University's education dean, Tetsuya Kobayashi. Almost 40 percent of the country's high-school graduates go on to higher education, he notes, and for most of them--the 76 percent who opt for private colleges--the entrance examinations are much less demanding, testing only two or three subject areas.

Others cite statistics that dispute Dean Kobayashi's contention. National surveys, for example, show that 80 percent of the country's high-school freshmen say they intend to go on to college. But only 58 percent actually apply. Of these, fewer than 40 percent actually enter.

In Japan's High Schools, Thomas P. Rohlen takes a careful look at 1980 college applications and calculates that, with the more than 200,000 ronin factored in, one out of every four students taking the examinations would not find a collegiate home. Among the high-school seniors aspiring to four-year colleges, he found that one in three would not succeed.

Although hundreds of new colleges and universities have opened in the last few decades, the fact remains that as educational opportunity has expanded, the rigors of "examination hell" have increased. In prewar Japan, there were only eight Imperial universities and a dozen private colleges and universities; today, there are more than 450 four-year colleges and an additional 520 junior colleges. But virtually none of the new institutions have joined the ranks of the most elite.

Thus, explains Noritake Kobayashi, former dean of the graduate business school at Keio University, the tremendous growth in opportunity has actually created "a kind of polarization between good and bad schools." Employers are now more, not less, likely to look to the established institutions to fill top entry-level jobs, he says.

'The Controlling Factor'

And entering at the top can often be crucial, according to Chie Nakane, author of Japanese Society. She explains that, because a rigid seniority system dominates much of Japanese industry, practically the only place the country's deep merit orientation comes into full play is in the hiring process. Thereafter, she says, the system works automatically.

In Ms. Nakane's view, the "principal controlling factor of social relations in Japan" is the "rigidity and stability produced by ranking." She asserts that "this ranking order, in effect, regulates Japanese life."

That is why, for those who have top-rank potential, entrance exams have become a nightmare. Says Dean Kobayashi: "For these students--and their parents--the psychological effect of the examinations is severe."

So severe, in fact, that Japan now leads the world in school-related suicides among those in the 15-to-19-year-old age group. The situation is such that the highly moral Japanese have begun to stretch or break the law to enhance their children's preparation for the tests. Some parents falsify addresses or send their children to live with relatives so they will have a shot at attending high schools with good records on examinations. And in the press, reports of other, more bizarre test-related phenomena are commonplace.

In one 1975 incident, readers of the newspaper Shukan Asahi were moved to write dozens of letters responding to a news account of a father so anxious for his daughter's success on her university examination that he dressed as a woman and took the test himself. The man was a teacher and lost his job over the masquerade. But his plight struck a nerve.

A novelist called the gesture "a wonderful thing ... a heart-warming story one cannot hear without tears." And a college professor, who said he thought he understood why the man had done it, had this to say:

"I often see these parents nervously pacing outside the examination rooms. If one or two of them decided to do this, it would hardly surprise me. I almost feel like saying 'well done."'

Assessing the Psychological Toll

Has the meritocracy gone awry? Many in Japan think that is very nearly the case. They attribute their country's alarming increase in incidents of school violence--particularly assaults against teachers--to the psychological toll taken by "examination hell." They also wonder whether the hoped-for surge in student creativity can emerge from a rigidly hierarchical system that makes getting into an institution more important than the learning it offers.

Unfortunately, both history and their own cross-purposes tell the Japanese that the system is, at present, self-perpetuating.

Hidenori Fujita, a Nagoya University professor of educational sociology, says ranking by examination has been "a sorting mechanism for society" since the Meiji Restoration, that period midway through the last century when compulsory education was introduced and Japan began its rise as a modern industrial state.

Then, he says, even the order of class seating was set according to the standings on monthly examinations. Examinations for promotion and graduation were public affairs, with town officials and the citizenry on hand to see prizes awarded to distinguished students.

But the examinations also provided upward mobility in post-feudal Japan, Mr. Fujita notes, and thus motivated students to work hard. The meritocratic element they introduced to Japanese society also whetted parents' aspirations, helping to spur the country's rapid climb to near-universal enrollment in compulsory education. Says the professor: "School was almost the only place where everybody could be equal."

Principles Have 'Deteriorated'

But since World War II, the competition for educational status has created a deepening gulf between the meritocratic and the egalitarian strains of Japanese education.

"The underlying ideas of education have lost their substance," concluded the Prime Minister's Conference on Culture and Education last March. Equality of opportunity has come to mean little more than providing "a uniform and equalized education," the panel said, while "the principle of fair competition and objective assessment ... has deteriorated into mere techniques of measuring the amount of knowledge by uniform standards and yardsticks, and also into the prevalence of tests and entrance examination systems that avoid an appropriate assessment of children's individuality and diverse abilities."

The study group indicted Japan's whole educational establishment as ''entirely biased to entrance examinations," producing a kind of school experience, it said, that stresses "cramming" more than discovery and learning.

Trivial Pursuits?

Many Japanese educators agree. The growing intensity of test competition, they say, is distorting the learning process. Nearly 15 years ago, an international team of examiners found that Japanese students often became "more interested in examination techniques than in real learning and maturation." That assessment is even more valid today.

As the Conference on Culture and Education noted in its report, parents, schools, and teachers have all been forced to abet the process. They emphasize the tests, even as they quibble with what the tests emphasize.

The material on most examinations "has nothing to do with what students need to know to live their lives," argues Makoto Kunishige, a recently retired junior-high-school principal from Kudamatsu. He questions the learning value of drills that merely promote the retention of arcane information. For example, he says, a high-school entrance test given last year to students in Hiroshima asked them to name a new port in Holland and cite factors influencing the weather in Italy.

At the university level, this esoteric questioning is compounded by escalating difficulty. There is, says one educator, a growing rivalry among colleges to produce the most difficult entrance exam as a way of ensuring quality students. The idea, says Thomas Rohlen, is that the brilliant and energetic students will find a way to master even the most confounding material.

Says Mr. Rohlen: "Japanese universities have never made a serious effort to judge a candidate's raw aptitude for learning. They want to know how much has actually been learned and how well information and theory can be applied to problem solving."

'Sky-High' Skills Required

Nor do test makers give serious thought to what is actually being taught in high schools. Unlike such systematic American assessments as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Japanese tests are often devised with little scientific or statistical groundwork. A National Center for University Entrance Examination solicits the help of educators in preparing the national screening exam, but entrance examinations for individual colleges and universities are put together by departmental faculty and can vary widely from institution to institution.

What universities most often come up with, says the Keio University business professor Noritake Kobayashi, are multiple-choice and fill-in-the blank questions that have raised the levels of skill and memory required for acceptance to "sky-high proportions, beyond any practical requirements of college and university education."

Rokuro Hikada, a professor at Kyoto Seika University and author of The Price of Affluence: Dilemmas of Contemporary Japan, says, in fact, that he doubts whether most university teachers or graduates would score well on the entrance test to their own university, if they had to take it again. "This alone indicates the absurdity of the present testing system," he claims.

"When a system approaches a point of perfection of its own," says Mr. Kobayashi, "it starts to deteriorate." And the testing system, he says, has reached that point. "Applicants are asked to sacrifice the development of their independent thinking and composition capabilities to meet the need for memorizing as many of the right answers as possible."

Curriculum With a 'Shadow'

To meet the demands of the tests, says Riyoichi Matsumura, supervisor for geography instruction in Yamaguchi prefecture, schools actually have two curricula--a broad one issued by the Ministry of Education and aimed at developing the "whole" student, and a rigid "shadow" curriculum based on questions likely to appear on entrance examinations.

Teachers at academic high schools find themselves forced to teach the rigid curriculum whether they want to or not, he says. If they don't, they fail their students. "If I taught in a more relaxed manner, my students would probably fail the exams," Mr. Matsumura says.

Father Gaiton Labadie, a Canadian priest who teaches English at private Rakusei High School in Kyoto, where 95 percent of the students go on to a prestigious national university, says that entrance exams influence much of the school's curriculum in the first two years and "100 percent" of it in the senior year. Like their counterparts at many top private schools, Rakusei teachers often cram the three-year required curriculum for high school into two years, giving their students the third year to spend entirely in preparation for the examinations.

The former Minister of Education, Michio Nagai, perhaps spoke for many disgruntled Japanese when he told Time magazine in 1983, "It is not an exaggeration to say that education designed to develop men who love learning and think for themselves has already been abandoned."

The Admission Sweepstakes

Despite its disgruntlement, however, the public seems wholely unable to stem the examination tide. As the author Thomas Rohlen puts it: "Hardly a soul in the entire country will say anything publicly in its favor, yet private behavior feeds the competition."

Perusing Japanese newpapers and magazines during February and March will give a clear indication of how deeply ingrained in society the examination system has become. Major dailies report the number of applicants and the competition rates at the more prestigious universities, along with the number of successful applicants, by type of high school, prefecture, and year of graduation. The country's largest weekly news magazines give a two-month running commentary on the whole entrance sweepstakes, often culminating with up to 15 pages of statistical details and interviews probing what successful candidates did or did not do to pass.

Such attention is fanning the competitive flames in the educational system itself, according to Nagoya University's Mr. Fujita, pitting high schools and prefectures against one another in the race to place students in prestige colleges. It also means, he says, that Japanese education is developing in the direction of private supplemental education, not in its formal structure.

Meanwhile, the number of struggling ronin students like Takehisa Kishimoto continues to grow. Of the 413,000 students admitted to Japanese universities in 1981, only 277,000 were new senior-high graduates; the rest were ronin. Of those applying to Tokyo University, what one commentator calls "the Mount Olympus" of Japanese education, an average of 35 percent are taking the entrance examination for the second time; 10 percent succeed on their third attempt. And there even those who, like a celebrated 1975 freshman admitted in his 30's, have long since passed the decade mark in their try for admission.

From Pyramid to Rectangle?

The situation is no better at the prestigious private universities, like Keio and Waseda, where more than 50 percent of the 1980 freshman classes passed the entrance tests after at least one ronin year. The ronin year is so common now that educators talk of a de facto 6-3-3-1-4 education system, rather than the 6-3-3-4 structure adopted after World War II. That extra cramming year between the three high-school years and the four college years has become a necessary evil, if not an institution.

"We need to change the ranking system of colleges from a pyramid structure with Tokyo University at the top to a rectangle that guarantees relatively even quality for all colleges," says Nobuhisa Kawamura, a teacher whose private high school in Tokuyama enrolls mostly students who fail the entrance examinations for other high schools in the region. "Then," he adds, "we ought to devise a testing system that makes sense."

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