Japan's Private-School Mania Isn't All Crazy

While some families let the drive to get their kids into a top school consume them, they have some sensible reasons

By Brian Bremner

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting in the auditorium at Seishin, a posh, private Catholic primary school for girls, with about 600 or so very wired Japanese mothers all wearing some variation of a navy-blue dress. Moments before, I had handed over my five-year-old daughter, Marie, to the Seishin taskmasters. I was pretty wired, too. You see, this was entrance-exam day -- the culmination of my yearlong personal odyssey into the hypercompetitive Japanese educational system.

I'm not going to rant about Japan's neurotic "education moms," or the cruelty of subjecting little snappers to overblown parental expectations and grueling exams that most fail. In my book, nothing is inherently twisted about academic competition or a healthy dose of test anxiety. Life is full such ordeals: The sooner you get used to it, the better.

And it was our choice to do this, anyhow. My wife and I could have blown off the whole ritual and enrolled Marie in a perfectly adequate public school or, if we wanted some snob appeal, an overpriced international school that instructs kids in English and insulates them from Japanese society. But what fun would that have been? Why not shoot for the big time? In Japan, that typically means angling to get into one -- or more -- of about a half-dozen private schools with fabled histories dating back to the Meiji Era.


  More than just bragging rights and an adrenaline rush are at stake here. The top primary schools -- Seishin, Rikkyo, Futaba, Keio, and Toho -- also run pretty good middle schools, high schools, and well-known universities. And unless your child likes to set classmates on fire, once he or she gets their ticket punched, they're pretty much set for the rest of their academic life.

So who gets in, and who doesn't? Years ago, alum parents and the upper crust with a lot of connections probably probably had an edge. These days, I'm not so sure. Schools like Toho and Keio no longer interview parents and focus exclusively on the kid's performance during the exam, which includes some picture-drawing, game-playing, and a paper test.

My wife and I attended two parent-teacher interviews at Seishin and Rikkyo, but the discussion focused primarily on Marie. Turns out Marie passed at Rikkyo and Keio, but failed at Toho and Seishin. Why? Got me. One teacher at Toho told my wife months ago that with so many kids being evaluated, the whole process added up to a giant lottery.


  It may well be a lottery, but every year the applications pour into these sorts of schools and so does a fair amount of money. Nothing wrong with that -- they're private schools and have to fend for themselves. But I wonder how long this game will last. Japan's rapidly aging population and declining number of students will change the equation.

In the U.S., a student's survival instincts tend to kick in sometime in high school, when things like grade-point averages and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores start to narrow or widen your academic options. In private schools here, all that pressure comes a lot sooner -- basically, when your kid has barely graduated from diapers.

That might strike some of my American friends as complete lunacy (unless they happen to live in a city like Washington, Boston, or New York, where such madness is also quite common). And in a way, it is nuts. Does this system help turn kids into inveterate slackers at a really young age? Hey, I'm in, I'm set, I've got nothing to worry about.


  Unfortunately, it's too easy to turn the whole episode into an overwrought psychodrama in which failing to get into a primary school of choice is seen as some life-altering event -- for parent or child. One friend of my wife's canceled her daughter's birthday party so she could study more, while a colleague of mine said his Japanese wife's hair started falling out weeks ahead of their child's exam. A little competition is one thing, but it's not worth letting this consume your life.

Yet, I can't help but feel a grudging admiration for the system, whatever its flaws. The education sure is high quality. I sat in on a sixth-grade math class at one school in which some sort of complex, multilinear equation was on the blackboard. I didn't have a clue what it meant, but I was sure Marie ought to learn it. And I'm told these schools teach English earlier than the public schools -- and probably just a little bit better.

If you think of these prestigious schools as business models with marketable brands, they're very impressive indeed. Parents are so eager to get their kids in that it's not uncommon for them to turn to juken -- professional test-preparation outfits. Juken instructors not only train the little ones in the art of exam taking but also give mothers tips on likely interview questions, model answers, and so on.


  Parents do a lot of intelligence work to unearth the secrets behind admission. Many schools hold perennial events like undo-kai, or open houses, fund-raising bazaars, summer festivals, and the like. The really hard-core crowd spend endless weekends scouting schools, scrutinizing teachers, and drilling parents with kids already there for scraps of information about what it takes to get in.

Even if you glean some information, I'm not sure how helpful it would be. The schools tend to vary the test from year to year, presumably to keep parents from coaching their kids. Also, typically thousands of kids compete for 50 or so slots. The kicker: Just to apply and take the test will cost you $200 to $300, so these schools are pulling in considerable money even before they send out tuition bills that typically run between $8,000 to $10,000 a year. On top of that, you might get hit to make a contribution to the school for general upkeep and so on.

Given the intense competition, a lot of parents make wagers on four or five schools. One Japanese friend of ours made their kid take seven entrance exams, including two on one day. The tests take place in early November, and the results are posted usually in a week or so.


  If your child is lucky enough to get in, many of the schools will demand a hefty deposit -- much or all of it nonrefundable -- within 24 hours of notification. So, you pay $3,000 or so to secure a seat for your child but may very well have to kiss that off if you find out a few days later the little genius got into your top choice.

Five or 10 years down the road, though, some schools will be competing fiercely for a dwindling number of students -- bad news not just for the schools but for the juken racket as well. Maybe it will be good news for Japanese mothers who'll finally get a chance to lighten up a bit come exam season.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online

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