Friday, 3 August 2018

Preparing to Enter University: Starting Examination Hell Early

A few weeks ago I gave a sample 30-minute lecture (known as a mogi jugyō =模擬授業) at an event at Tokyo Big Sight, a convention and exhibition centre in Ariake, Eastern Tokyo, an area which sits on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. The five-city event was called Yumenavi LIVE (夢ナビライブ) 2018, organised by FROMPAGE, a Japanese commerical services company, and supported by the Ministry of Education. Aimed at 1st and 2nd year high-school students, the Tokyo event alone boasted 380 lectures, 206 university booths, and 72 TED-style talks and was attended by 50,164 students! The event was billed as "a day to discover what (you) want to study and to get in touch with universities (you) can study at" (manabitai gakumon o mitsuke, manaberu daigaku to deau ichi-nichi =学びたい学問を見つけ,学べる大学と出会う一日).
The two towers of the imposing Tokyo Big Sight conventiona and exhibition centre
Tokyo Big Sight convention and exhibition centre in Ariake, Eastern Tokyo
Given the number of attendees and lectures, it was hugely impressive how smoothly everything went, with preparation starting many months before with an interview and short video message for students (viewable here together with the full lecture). On the day itself, everything was ultra efficient and timed to the second. Speaking about the construction of Japanese identity, my own bilingual lecture, entitled "Who are the Japanese", had a full-house of 120 students (who could book seats before) plus others standing at the back. Lectures took place in 10 giant hexagons, with 6 speakers talking concurrently in each block; in fact, I'm not quite sure how students managed to hear amid all the cacophony! Afterwards, we were whisked off to a special area for students who had questions.
As Japan's population plummets - current estimates see it falling from 127m to some 90m by 2050 - the number of 18-year-olds is also in free-fall and competition between universities to secure entrants has become increasingly fierce. In Japan, the market for those looking to enter top schools and universities - known as juken - is big business. The word juken suru (受験する) literally means to take an exam and students preparing to or actually taking exams are called juken-sei. When does this start? In the case of those applying for national, prefectural and other public universities (kokkōritsu daigaku =国公立大学), students will be going to private after-school cram schools (juku =塾) from the first year of high school, and could start preparing for the exams as early as the end of their second year. For third-year high-schoolers the pressure is really on and they are pretty much devoting all their time to study by the summer when they become juken-sei proper. Whereas some students do get into universities through the recommendation and the AO system (based on interviews and essays rather than exams proper) and end their juken hell early, for most December-February are the juken peak, with an unfortunate few not finalising their place right up until March (for entry in April). But it is not only the student that suffers; the whole family is expected to pull together and support the juken-sei during this period, which means no holidays, no noise, and no fun...