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.
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.
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!
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?
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!