Near the end of elementary school Japanese students prepare for the next stage in their lives by writing entrance examinations for junior high school. Most students have a preference, but they write entrance tests for more than one school in order to have a fall-back option in case they miss out on their school of preference. Students must sit entrance exams for public as well as private schools, and public schools require fees, forcing me to wonder about the Japanese conception of “public school” and the function of taxes. I admit that after twenty years I still don’t get it.
Then when junior high schoolers are approaching the end of their school they repeat the process for senior high school entrance (unless they attend a combined junior-senior high school, in which case they just continue their schooling in the same institution without interruption). Finally, senior high schoolers repeat the process again for university entrance. Predictably, schools charge a fee for applicants to sit an entrance exam, so it helps the school to attract as many interested applicants as possible while family finances benefit from their children writing as few tests as possible in the hope of succeeding with the minimum number. A declining teenage population has made it more difficult for schools to attract sufficient numbers of students and so there have already been some closures of floundering private schools, with more looming in the future. Meanwhile, public boards of education are already re-zoning school districts and amalgamating schools, manipulating teachers into early retirement and hiring fewer freshmen educators.
The famous Japanese “juku” (cram schools) exist as a completely parallel system of schooling that most students attend as an extra-curricular activity to prepare themselves for all these entrance exams, because schools themselves don’t do it. Of course, that’s a condemnation of Japanese schooling that begs the question, What are Japanese schools doing if they are not preparing students to pass the tests for the next level of education?! But people here do not perceive it. For them, a test just for the sake of a test is reason enough. They want to know where they rank in the group, and that’s what tests tell them. Japanese aren’t the only ones for this. Asians are renowned for their education obsession, and Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese students have it worse than Japanese youngsters.
My daughter gave up sports (karate) in elementary school in order to attend juku and prepare for junior high school. My son did the same (baseball). Then in February 2004 - the New Year is the entrance exam season, nicknamed “Examination Hell,” or “juken jigoku” - she sat entrance examinations for two schools - both were six-year, combined girls’ junior/senior high schools. She was successful and offered entrance by both schools. Naturally, she jumped for her first choice and after seeing her name posted on the school’s gate announcing the successful candidates she telephoned her Grade 6 teacher at home in the evening to tell him the joyous news.
During Examination Hell it is a common sight to see mothers with their Grade 6 children waiting at school gates to see the pass lists. There are many tears from the disappointed. It is a stupidly masochistic ritual and a heart-rending sight.
I was happy for my daughter, that she got into the school she wanted. But I never stopped thinking about that other school and how sad it is that she did not go there as well. You can only attend one school, of course. But my point is that an entirely different life was available, like an alternate universe, and somehow I think that that alternate life still exits out there, like the soul of a miscarried fetus that the Church acknowledges, even though it never properly existed. She would have had completely different friends and teachers, people who are just as real as the friends and teachers she currently enjoys, and who are alive and out there right now. Those girls who would have been her friends are living without knowledge of how close they came to being part of my daughter’s life, and vice versa. There are completely alternate school clubs that she did not participate in and school trips that she did not enjoy. Thinking about it almost makes me want to cry - like for the loss of that miscarried fetus. People do not realize just how close an alternate life is. It’s a dangerous thing getting out of bed each day. You can never be sure where you will end up.