Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Juken: Japanese Test-Taking Hell

What if you took one test that would determine the fate of your future: every aspect of your life, from where you went to high school, what kind of subjects you could study, whether or not you could go to college, and if so, where... Do you think you might be a bit stressed about it?

Now imagine that you had to take that test at the tender age of 13 or 14.

Welcome to the reality of every junior high school student in Japan-- an alternate universe which I lovingly refer to as as Hell on earth.

Two of my favorite boys from Higashi, rebelliously allowing their white shirts to stick out from under their seifuku uniform. After I took this picture they were reprimanded and forced to tuck their shirts back in before being allowed to leave school premises. Posted by Hello

As if these students don't have it hard enough as it is. For one, they go to school all year round. I could be off by a few days, but I think their longest break is three weeks. Before you start muttering to yourself about how you had to walk up hill to and from school, in ten feet of snow with no shoes, keep in mind that during their 'break' they are still required to suit up in their notorious seifuku (literally sailor clothes, school uniforms modeled after western miliary uniforms during the Meiji reforms in an attempt to modernify Japan), and report to school for various club activites, as well as complete a tonne of homework and study.

They also have to walk up hill to school both ways in the freezing cold, and although they have shoes, coats are not permitted unless they are an officially sanctioned part of the school uniform. Oh, and girls are required to wear skirts all year round.

Higashi Jr. High girls, soon to graduate, modeling their seifuku. Note the mandatory skirts, lack of coats, and snow on the ground. Posted by Hello

If you think thats bad, until three years ago school was 7 days a week--no weekend whatsoever. Can you imagine a world with no weekend? These days students still go to school on Saturdays for various commitments, forced 'volunteering' and club activities. And even though Sunday is supposed to be a day off, I never fail to see students in seifuku suspiciously close to school grounds.

Secondly, Juku. May I introduce to you the devil himself: Cram school. School after school. Here's the deal: Kids go to school all day, stay after for club, and then head for these evil little crams schools, which cost a small fortune, to learn everything the school system is failing to teach them. Coming back from Osaka I have seen students leaving them as late as 10 o' clock, and now that its test season, many are open until midnight.

Seniors at Higashi Jr. High wearing in-school uniforms. That's right. Seifuku is only worn while traveling to and from school and during tests, in order to prepare students for entrance exams. I'm going to miss them! Such cool kids! Posted by Hello

Which leads us to that special time of year when hell spews up onto earth's surface like lava from a volcano, destroying everything in its path.Juken season-- a student's final chance to prepare for the high school entrance exams they have their spent their entire educational experience being groomed for. Everything the students learn, from the moment they enter the educational system, is geared towards passing this one test. Nothing else matters-- not how well they do in school, not how involved they are, and certainly not how well they understand the material. As many students will tell you, they simply memorize information for the test, and regurgitate without any real understanding at all.

Can you imagine the stress and strain this would cause a responsible adult, let alone a teenager? Not to mention the pressure of dishonoring one's family. Were you ready to decide the path your life would take when you were that age?

Where would you be had someone decided for you? Because that is exactly what happens. Based on how well you do preparing for these tests, you can either apply to an academic high school, an agricultural high school, a commercial high school, or just forget about high school all together and get a job.

Maybe I'm wrong. I mean, these kids looks like they're ready for it, don't they? Posted by Hello

Based on your results you are accepted to or rejected from your choice of high schools, the academic level of which is clearly defined in Japan, meaning it is an almost certain indicator of whether or not you will be accepted to college. If you are deemed worthy enough to continue your education, your test results will decide the acadenic level of the colleges you can apply to.

Many students that want to study academically are discouraged if their teachers do not believe they will pass the test, and from my experience here, teachers constantly underestimate their students. Its better to succeed at a low level than to fail aiming too high. Not to mention their perception of intelligence, which seems to be based on whether or not the student conforms, is respectful of tradition, and obediently, blindy accepts whatever is fed to them, no questions asked. Creativity and individuality are stifled, frowned upon and referred to as 'problematic' or 'troublesome'.

So there you have it. Shot down before they even get off the ground, students who want to go to university are doomed to a life of planting rice...Not that there is anything wrong with that, if it is what you want to do! But to be told that that is all you are capable of based on your academic performance at the age of 14...Its insanity!


Cynthia said...

Hi Melissa, amazing blog,very colourful photos. Thanks for leaving me a message. Please come back to my blog and check out my message for you.

Cynthia said...

Maybe it has something to do with asian culture. I think you can tell so much about a country by observing their education system. I mean, what is the best way to look at their values as to look at what materials and attitudes they feed their future leaders?

When I was in Hong Kong, I moved to New Zealand with my parents at the age of 12. I actually bought a book about study tips a few years back in Hong Kong, found myself reading tips by a Japanese professor. So this book I've got is a trasnlated version of the different tips this professor gathered from his student life,I found it pretty creative.

I think it is fair to say both Hong Kong and Japan are capitalistics. People are driven to work,though Japanese's works ethics are famous.

I don't think anyone can really know what they want to do in life at 14. Very lucky or unlucky few would have know at that age. In fact I think Western style of education saves my academic achievement. I was often regarded as the below average student when I was in Hong Kong, simply because I am more artistic incline,and lack concentration.

I got into quite a lot of trouble at school because of my concentration. I survived the school system by private tutor,my parents paying them hard earned money. In fact the whole Chinese culture is to aim to get kids to get into bilingual high schools ,so for primary school kids, there would be nothing worse for them than for to know that they are not smart enough for a high school that taught subjects in english (apart from chinese history and chinese literature and physical education and religious education). We also have crams school and yeah, they are evil, most are illegal and overcharge. We still go though because otherwise we can't keep up for junior high.

I know older kids ,high school kids have habits of reciting answers and passages of study materials, and just copy them down when it's exam time. No, asian mentality, or, more so, a very goal oriented mentality with narrow vision, you do the work, you pass the exam, you get your degree and then you can get your designer lifestyle ,complete with 2.5 kids, spouse with equal education and well paid and respected job and prestiage.

At Hong Kong, the junior high I attended for a year, is a designer junior and high school combine together. It is a brand 1 school. In Hong Kong, we brand school, the worse is brand 5. And basically brand 1 school existed only in expensive areas of Hong Kong, and if you don't live in that area,you are not actually allow to enrol in school at other regions. So there are parents who especially rent apartments around the brand 1 schools areas, so that they can enrol their kids into those good schools.

My old school won't allow anyone to wear makeup,no nail polish of course. You can't style your hair. All product would be wash off if you are caught. The length of skirts cannot be shorter than knee high. The aim is for kids to be equal and actually all to conform.

I don't think Hong Kong's education is as hardcore as Japans. Though I see simarlities and understand it, because I used to read lots of japanese comics and it depicts a lot of their culture that I grew to understand.

Under the product of cramming style education,I came to NZ feeling like a sheep, a blind sheep that didn't know how to think for myself. I found NZ kids naughty because they have freedom. I remembered how shocked I was to see kids to leave their seats without asking teacher's permission to leave their seats to throw rubbish. In Hong Kong, you would never dream of doing such a thing,unless you want to get into trouble.

But this style of education actually free kids like me, who are not ever consider as bright or intelligent in the cramming system. I was being encouraged to do better and didn't find teachers to be as high and mighty. I could talk to my teachers and relate to them a lot easier. As result, I think I learn to accept myself a lot more than I have been,but of course I am a work in progress for God,just like everybody else.

I think for teachers, it is very important to pour out love,trust and encouragement to kids. As they are often in the position where kids would look up to them. If a teacher has a bad attitude towards the kids and teaching,and treat them like dirt, I think the kids would not come out of their class learning trust or respect,or even the materials they are to learn well.

When a person is being encouraged,they do better. I don't know what it is, but I think kids,often younger kids don't really know how to think. Teachers teach them to think and to develop common sense and judgement. So I think being a teacher is a very important job. And of course as students, they have to know their identity ,and their gifts.

Eastern culture focus more on group work generally, and Western culture value individualities. Maybe a balance of both can help us to develop a better future and education system that works for the future leaders.

Lindizzy said...

Hey- It's so interesting to read your comments on education in JR High. Cynthia has an interesting insight, too since she moved from Hong Kong to NZ. Crazy, isn't it? Poor kids...