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Japan Fun Fact #6: Now Entering Hell

January 17th, 2005

This last weekend was not just an ordinary one for 570,000 high school students in Japan–it was the highlight of what is called “Exam Hell,” the extensive period of intensive study culminating in a series of exams that have decided the fate of millions of Japanese for many decades, and continues to this day. Students who do well get into name institutions; those who don’t get into lower schools or no school at all.

First off, Japan’s compulsory education only goes up to age 15, the end of junior high school (it’s 16 in America). What surprised me was that, unlike in the U.S., getting into a senior high school is not guaranteed here. Back in Toyama in the 80’s, one of the office workers in my conversation school had two young daughters, neither of which passed their senior high school entrance exams, so mom had to pay for them to get into private schools.

But getting into universities is harder, and even more exclusive. This weekend was the exam time for almost all students, but it’s not like the SAT or ACT exams. Here, there is one test for nearly all schools on the same day–but you have to choose to take the test for just one school. Not like in the U.S., where you get an exam score and can take that to any school. No, here you not only have to choose one school, you have to choose one major, and take the test for that. If you don’t get in, then your options suddenly become much more limited. Public universities are now closed to you, unless you wait a year (as a “ronin,” like a masterless samurai) and take the tests again, pass or fail again. But for right now, you’ve lost, you’re out in the cold. But not without options: you can take another test for a private school–probably a much lower-ranking one than you had hoped–and if you pass that test you can get into their school.

But even for those who passed, it’s not over; typically, the top schools are flooded with more applicants than they can take in, so there is a second entrance exam for them.

And even if you get in after that, you are stuck in the major you chose. Unlike in the U.S., where you can switch majors practically at a whim, in Japan, you must first take an even harder cross-major entrance exam, and if you pass that, you must pay a fee of several thousand dollars to complete the transfer.

So I am informed, at least, by a highly reliable source. The Internet does not exactly seem to be brimming with this kind of information, at least not in English. Does anyone have anything to add to this, or to correct?

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