Career Advancement for Professionals
December 7, 1999


Exam Wars, Prepping and Other Nursery Crimes

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    TOKYO -- In a brightly decorated classroom, four tiny children sat around a low table the other day decorating their newly made string phones by pasting colorful strips of paper onto cardboard rolls.

    "Hold the roll and paste it yourself," said one of the four teachers at the Cecillia Pre-School Center, cheerily encouraging a 3-year-old girl. "Show it to the others. Look, it is becoming a telephone!"

    At first glance, there is little to distinguish the scene here from an ordinary nursery school in other countries. Certainly, there are few hints of the "exam hell" that Japanese say has become a plague on childhood in their country.

    But just as surely as the students come to this special preparatory school once a week from their ordinary nursery schools for an intensive burst of one-on-one learning with teachers, they are taking their first step into the country's performance-obsessed national school examination system.

    Concern has mounted gradually for years in Japan over the downward creeping spread of school entrance exams to ever lower age groups, driving mothers to enroll their children in expensive cram schools even before they have learned to eat with chopsticks. It is said nowadays that even pregnant women here often count aloud believing that it will help prepare their children for the competition that awaits them.

    Still, it took a murder in Tokyo last week to shock many people here into finally concluding that things had gone too far. Haruna Wakayama, a 2-year-old girl who had just passed an entrance exam, was killed by the mother of a classmate who had failed. The jealous mother has told police that she strangled Haruna in a playground bathroom, stuffing her body into a bag and boarding a train to take it to her parents' home 120 miles outside of Tokyo for burial.

    Tokyo's newspapers have been filled ever since with accounts of the country's degeneration into a hostile society, driven by outward measures of success rather than human relationships and feelings. The killing has inspired scores of editorials about the "examination wars" that mark the progression from kindergarten to 12th grade of every Japanese child.

    And much more than in the past, there have been searching discussions about the emptiness of mothers' lives and the inequalities between the sexes here that have pushed many mothers to desperately project so many of their aspirations upon their young children. Fathers here have little to do with child rearing.

    "When I was young, relationships were richer, not only with relatives but within neighborhoods," said Gentaro Kawakami, a professor of sociology at Shumei University and longtime education critic. "There were more varied ways of realizing one's potential. But now the society has become so narrowly focused that the only way we can measure ourselves is through IQ tests and school scores. Most mothers even introduce themselves announcing the names of their husband's company and the school their children attend."

    But if descriptions of symptoms like these have been fairly uniform, the prescriptions for change have been sorely lacking.

    For most parents of children this age, paying hundreds of dollars a month for classes like these is intended to secure admission for their child into one of Japan's prestigious and highly competitive kindergartens affiliated with national universities. Alternatively, others will aim for a group of top-drawer private schools.

    Entrance in either opens the way to a top elementary school and is coveted by parents for giving their child some measure of reprieve from the long hours of costly evening cram school that most ordinary public school students endure from elementary school through high school. Just as important is the almost lifelong leg up in the ceaseless contest, repeated each generation, for success and power through education that comes from attendance of a top school.

    But many Japanese themselves say the force that drives this system comes first and foremost from the country's so-called kyoiku mamas, or education-obsessed mothers, for whom the successes of a child starting at the earliest school ages are often the most important source of self-esteem and prestige in their lives. Japan's education system is unforgiving for those who slip up early, and for these mothers, the celebration of their child's acceptance into the "right" elementary school is analogous to what an American parent might feel upon learning that her child had just aced the College Boards or been accepted into an Ivy League college.

    Japan's exam-intensive approach to education is a legacy of the Meiji period of the last century, when the country was a highly stratified society and the national obsession was catching up to the West. Imperial edicts depicted sacrificing heavily for education as far more than parents' obligation to their children, but each family's duty to the nation.

    By any economic measure, Japan caught up with the West nearly a generation ago. Moreover, by American standards, this society has since become highly egalitarian, both in terms of income distribution and ideology. Still, amid the unending acceleration of educational competition members of Japan's broad, affluent middle class are desperately seeking whatever small advantage they can get for their offspring.

    At the Cecillia Pre-School Center, in a well-to-do Tokyo ward not far from the murdered child's school, the prepping of 2- and 3-year-olds for kindergarten entrance exams mostly takes the form of pleasant, but unremitting interaction with teachers. Children are led in song, encouraged to make simple toys, play games together and respond to questions. The mothers who send their children here are united in saying that the emphasis on testing and competition for places in kindergarten may have gone too far, even as they surrender to the system.

    "Too much competition should be avoided, but it is difficult to remove competition from the system," said Tomoko Shimazu, a smartly-dressed 29-year-old mother whose pigtailed 3-year-old daughter had just taken her first class. "Perhaps we need to change, but it is difficult to say how."

    Another mother whose child was beginning the classes that day spoke up to deny that the competition meant much to her at all.

    "Sure I would like my child to be admitted to a good school, but I also want my child to have experiences playing with other children his age," she said. "Right now, competition seems to be spreading into everything, but in 10 or 15 years, perhaps people will realize that our exam system is not all that is cracked up to be."

    When the parents had finished collecting their children and gone, however, Yoshiko Otsuka, the school director, offered another rationale -- one that eerily echoed the Meiji ideologues who so successfully associated education with the fate of the nation, then under Imperial rule.

    "I've been involved in early education for 30 years, and I've realized that parents want the best education for their children," she said. "What's wrong with competition? This doesn't mean cramming, but giving the children a certain discipline that they don't get at home, molding them in the ways that our consensual society demands. For this purpose, nursery school alone, letting children simply sleep and eat is just too free. What we are really giving them is a sense of direction."

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