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And things I don't like about Japan #1

Enpitsu ippon de, mirai-o kaeraru. Sore-ga juken.

   This was taken from an advertisement of the Yotsuya Gakuin, a chain of cram schools. It says, "With a single pencil you can change your future. That's what the [college entrance] exam is." Or something to that effect.

   I suspect that Yotsuya is trying to appeal to the dreams of high school students and rônin, telling them that armed with nothing but a pencil, they'll be able to take command of their future. Yotsuya's advertisements usually feature a nerdy looking kid who recently passed Tôkyô University's entrance exam. The message, of course, is that if you study at Yotsuya you too will get into "Tôdai".

   It's all a load of crap, though.

   A few years ago, Kenta, a former student of mine who was studying at the prestigious Nada Kôkô (灘高校) in Hyôgo prefecture which is reputed to be Japan's very best high school, paid me a visit to ask what I thought about his applying to Harvard University.

   "What do I think? By all means," I said, "go for it!"

   And go for it he did.

   We spent the next year and a half, meeting regularly to prepare for the SATs, TOEFL, AP tests, and put together the application package which turned out to be quite an involved process. Much more so than when I was his age. In addition to submitting his test scores, academic record, letters of recommendation, Kenta also had to write several essays, produce a promotional video of himself, and interview with representatives from the universities he was applying to. He also visited the campuses, where he talked with students and admissions officers.

   In the end, the efforts paid off and Kenta was accepted by both Harvard and Yale. He settled on Yale.

   Now compare that admission process with Japan's game show-like admission test where, armed again with that single pencil, you're given only one chance to shine.

   What happens if someone decides to jump in front of your train the morning of the test, making you late for the exam? What if you have a bad cold or a stomachache? What if your parents had a fight that kept you up late the night before the test? Tough luck. That, after all, is what the college entrance exam is in Japan.

   It begs the question of whether it is the best way to choose students, many of whom will go on to become key people in the nation's bigger companies as well as in the government, by virtue of their having graduated from Tôkyô University.

   Last month while I was in Tôkyô, I paid the influential university a visit. The first student I came across could have easily been mistaken for a mentally handicapped boy. Seriously. A good portion of the students have that uncanny air about them. But, when you go back and look at how the kids are selected--by an entrance exam that doesn't test how someone thinks so much as how many arcane facts he can stuff into his noggin--it isn't all that surprising that what you end up with is a student body full of Rain Men.

   On a side note, I was suprised by how nice the campus and buildings were. I've visited quite a few national univerisities and am usually shocked at how run-down and shabby they are. Tôkyô university's core buildings pictured here are the exception and not the rule.

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