December 7, 1999
Exam Wars, Prepping and Other Nursery Crimes
Child Abuse Has Japan Rethinking Family Autonomy (Aug. 15, 1999)
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
OKYO -- 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
"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
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
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
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
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."