Entrance examinations for schools, juken, are a distinctive characteristic of the Japanese educational system. Pressure to succeed on the exams is intense, because success means acceptance in a prestigious private school. This video from FujiTV (15 min in Japanese only) gives us a look at the world of juken, and we can even take a sample juken test ourselves, to see if we are as smart as Japanese kindergartners.
Our voyage through the world of juken begins at 4AM on a rainy morning, as anxious parents stand in a queue in front of a famous private school. Today is nyuugaku gansho teishutsubi, the day for filing applications for new elementary school students. It is every parent’s hope that their children will score well on the nyuugaku shiken (entrance exam) and be accepted into a prestigious private elementary school. All the best schools are connected with the best high schools and universities, so getting into a famous elementary school at age 5 could eventually get you into top university, and determine your destiny.
Quickly the scene shifts to 5 year old children taking the test, and again shifts to gates of Keio and Waseda elementary schools. These young children will not pass through these gates unless they ace this test! And to pass the test, children must study in juku, cram schools. In the back of this cram school session, anxious mothers sit as their children prepare for the test. These are kyouiku mama, an odd phrase literally meaning “childrearing mother” but the meaning implies a near obsession with childrearing. A kyouiku mama will stop at nothing to insure her children have the best preparation for the juken, time and money are no object. Unfortunately, the children really have no say in the matter, and it is the children that must achieve those goals, and live up to the pressures to succeed even at such a young age.
Now we meet young Yuki, our juken examinee, and his family. Yuki comes out and immediately starts bouncing his ball with a fury. His parents explain the advantages that a child will have, if he can pass his juken. We can follow in Yuki’s footsteps through cram school, we are even going to take a sample question that is representative of an elementary school entrance exam.
Notice the four balance beams with boxes marked with a circle, x, diamond, double circle, or triangle. Which box is heaviest? You have 60 seconds to solve this puzzle, just like our 5 year olds. Two of the famous FujiTV network anchors agree to take a full test. They score about 45 to 55%. They can’t believe children can pass this test.
Back at the cram school, the mothers are also cramming for the exams, the teacher instructs the parents on developing the essential skills their children must master to pass the juken. The children are tested for mental as well as physical condition and coordination. We see a juku taiso (calesthenics) class, and the children bounce their balls and jump around in strict coordination to the teacher’s shouting and drumming. Every innocent playtime must be turned into an opportunity for physical and mental development. The difference between passing and failing the juken might depend on a child’s rhythm in ball bouncing and playing hopskotch.
But to remedy the slackers, there is a whole industry of instructional materials for the kyouiku mama, covering every aspect of the juken experience. We see a few excerpts from an instructional video that shows how to pass the school interview. We begin with precise instructions on how to enter the room and in what order (father, then child, then mother) and how deeply to bow. Immediately upon observing the courteous bow, the interviewers start furiously writing their observations. Don’t let this unsettle you, the tiniest little mistake and the interview is down the tubes! The interview begins with a soft-ball question to the mother, what kinds of things are important in raising your child? She smiles and answers that she is an only child, so it is important to take time for her to play with the neighborhood kids, so she learns to cooperate with others. The child looks up with adoring eyes, like she’s the best mom in the world. Now that is how to conduct an interview. Now it’s Dad’s turn, he’s asked if he has any worries about his child’s rearing. Dad says he’s awfully busy at work, and he worries that he should be spending more time at home with his children rather than spending all his time in cheap love hotels doing drugs with whores. Well, that’s not quite what Dad says, but he could just as well have said it, judging by the reacton. The moment he said he put work ahead of his child’s welfare, his family was judged to be unsuitable for this prestigious school.
No detail must be overlooked, our first impression is the only impression we will make on the interviewers, so our wardrobe must be meticulous. Conservative black and white clothes are in order, particularly for the children.
We follow little Yuki on his way to cram school. The family hops in the car, our brave little warrior is fed by hand and gulps a juice box on his way into battle. We watch as another juku student practices from a workbook even in the subway. But as we arrive at juku, Yuki is sick. But there is no rest for the weak or injured, the fight must go on. Yuki’s mother watches like a hawk as he bravely pushes forward with the practice exams.
A group of kyouiku mama are gathered, to compare what they have spent in preparation expenses. The report spending between 3.5 to 4 million yen, between US$29,000 to $33,000.
Now all the preparations are done, and the test day is here. The families and their children head for the exam, and our cameras cannot follow. The test will take 4 hours, and then there is nothing we can do but wait. The results are posted on a board in front of the school. The excited parents rush to see if Yuki’s number appears. They search and yes, there it is, Yuki is accepted! Dad uses an interesting phrase, shibireta, he “slid in.” Now all the hard work is over…or is it? As Yuki settles down for a well deserved rest, he is barely aware that he will soon be facing these pressures every day at his new elementary school.