Select Page

The Japanese National Exams

The Japanese National Exams

by William H. Benson

August 14, 2014

     In an effort to raise students’ educational levels across the globe, the Program for International Student Assessment, encourages hundreds of thousands of 15-year-old students from sixty-five countries to take a two-hour test that covers just three subjects: math, science, and reading. In 2012, 510,000 students completed the test, and the PISA test scores reveal sobering news.

     The Shanghai Chinese students won first place in all three subjects, and Peru’s students took last place in all three. The Japanese students scored seventh in math, and fourth in both science and reading, and the South Koreans received fifth place in math and in reading, and seventh in science. The United States students were stuck in the middle of the pack: 36th in math, 28th in science, and 24th in reading.

     As expected, the Asian students claimed the top scores, and so one wonders, “Why?” Part of the answer may lie in those countries’ national exams. For example, in Japan, high school students devote an enormous number of hours studying for Japan’s national exam given once a year on a Saturday and a Sunday in January. A student’s score determines where he or she will attend college.

     Those with the highest scores receive acceptance letters into the top public universities, such as the University of Tokyo, but those with the lower scores will either study for another year and take the exam a second time, or they will give up and attend a private university. Because those students who graduate from the select public universities receive the best job offers, the course of the students’ lives hinges upon that one test score.

     The entrance examination—or nyugaku sheken—is composed of twenty-nine tests. On Saturday students complete sixteen tests in civics, geography, history, Japanese literature, and foreign languages, and on Sunday they complete thirteen tests on math and science. A Japanese friend once explained that the three most important parts of the exam are Japanese, English, and mathematics.

     Although the students may learn the material, the pressure to compete well is overbearing, and the work is solitary and lonely. For a student to fail the exam is a crushing defeat that brings shame and  disgrace upon the family, and so parents push their students to study hour after hour.

     Instead of sports and practice and football and volleyball games, many Japanese high school students pore over their textbooks for hours every day. They attend school during the day, receive additional instruction during private evening classes, and then complete their homework after midnight. Five and a half hours of sleep a night is common.

     Critics ridicule the system, saying that the “entrance exams hang over Japanese students like a personal devil.” Another said it is a “poor system, a real plague.” “Those stupid exams are a colossal waste of time, dollars, energy, and in the end achieve basically nothing!” The exams “guarantee that a group of kids will get little chance to do well once out of school; pretty sad, really.”

     Critics point out that for some students, intellectual thinking does not begin to develop until their late teens or early twenties. An incredibly-difficult exam at seventeen would mar a students’ potential. 

     And once a student has won an envied position at a university, the teachers and professors at a Japanese university do not expect the same monumental hours of study, and so truancy at the university is common. Of utmost importance are the academic credentials and the university’s prestige.

     In contrast to the Japanese system, universities in the United States rely more upon a student’s high school Grade Point Average, rather than his or her score on a national exam, such as the ACT or SAT, to determine admission into a university. The same is true for the professional schools, such as for law or medicine or business or graduate school.

     Although the average high school student in the United States will not work as hard as their counterparts in Japan, or in Korea, or in China, once on the university’s campus, an American student feels the intense pressure to perform well on exams, and so he or she learns to study longer hours than their high school teachers expected in order to maintain a solid GPA.

     Which system works best? The Japanese or the American? If you want to ensure a top score on a PISA exam, you will want a Japanese-styled system, but if you want a system with second chances, other opportunities, escape routes, and alternatives, then you will want a system such as in the United States. Anybody, whatever their age, can go back to school in August, and dare to dream about a better life that they can make happen with a superior education, and no national exam will prevent it.

     I think it was Jesse Jackson who used to say, “If you are in school, stay there; if you are not in school, go back.”