Thursday, 19 January 2017


Examination hell ‘juken jigoku’ puts a student through a grueling trial of anxiety and fatigue to take college entrance examinations — success would lead to promises of a wonderful life while failure would lead to economic and social hardships.

The first societal pressure on youngsters was so deeply felt in the ordeal of examination hell that some students never fully recovered from it. As a result, the comics ‘manga’ society was created in Japan as most of the young and some of the old colluded in developing abhorrence for reading literary books. It’s not surprising to find youngsters read only comics or men and women browse through comics instead of newspapers on a commuter train. In the most literate nation of the world, manga corners about 30% of the book market sales.

In Japan, the type and rank of school play a crucial role in deciding the fate of a youngster in society where he will be allocated a niche in the economic strata of social hierarchy. Once set in a chosen path, he would have little chance to alter his course in life.

The Japanese have believed that entering a prestigious school or university guarantees future lifetime success. To fuel this myth, numerous large corporations offered lucrative jobs to only graduates of prestigious universities. With the old concept of corporate ‘lifetime’ employment, the potential candidate would be assured of financial stability for the rest of his life.

The examination hell phenomenon exists everywhere in the world but hardly noticeable, for most contenders usually belong to their nation’s elite, a fraction of the whole population. However, Japan consists of mainly a middle-class society where the majority competes for the best schools on equal footing; the impact of the phenomenon is overwhelming. In a country with a high literacy rate of 98%, the race to surpass others inevitably becomes more difficult and intense each year. Everyone strives for a luxurious lifestyle, which adds steam to the competition for the best school, best paying job and best things money-can-buy in life.

As more and more students opted for higher education, the need for more diversified and innovative higher learning institutions have become inevitable. In the last three decades or so, there was such a boom in vocational schools, junior colleges and universities throughout Japan that a student could still enter one of the private institutions after failing to enter a targeted university.

However, there were great differences in quality of education and research among the universities, resulting in a hierarchy of institutions, with the national universities and a few long-established private universities at the top. One assumes the higher the tuition fee the better the education would be; on the contrary, the average tuition of a private university doubles that of a public university. The government assistance to private universities in monetary terms is practically insignificant compared to that of the public universities, leaving private universities to support themselves by demanding higher tuition fees.

The price to pay for pursuing a superior education costs the Japanese society more dearly than ever anticipated. The phenomenon of examination hell has been blamed as one of the cohorts for a multitude of recent social ills. Evidently, the students tend to ignore all important aspects of education, except the attainment of high marks. Poor parental guidance, distant teaching staff, and the education system itself are acrimoniously faulted for failing to impart proper education to the young. The education concept of developing a sound body and mind had been shelved — abandoning the teachings of morals, creativity, and cooperation with others. In fact, nowadays students seem to be indifferent to what is right or wrong, lack a general interest in learning, and prefer isolation to group cooperation, which leads to a cultivation of self-centered, aimless, immature individuals.

Due to the economic recession in the last decade, the winds of change are being felt everywhere in society. The practice of lifetime employment along with a seniority system is fading fast in the corporate scene. Employers are making alterations in the personnel arena, weeding out the dead weight and promoting the talented few in revitalizing their companies for business survival. Furthermore, they have shown a tendency to hire university graduates over junior college graduates and part-time workers over full-time employees. Due to the high rate of unemployment among college graduates, more students than ever are forced to vie for the limited entry slots at prestigious universities, hoping that it would lead to future employment.

Subsequently, the drastic changes in the work force will effect the entrance and graduation requirements of schools. Due to the shrinking population of young Japanese, the nation’s junior colleges and some universities are battling to survive by maintaining a quota of 1000 to 2000 students, respectively, in order to turn a profit. One potential problem — academic standards could decline if junior colleges and universities attempt to attract students by lowering admission standards or doing away with admission tests altogether.

Furthermore, not only the education institutions are in deep trouble but also numerous cram schools had already gone bankrupt, and some have even faced lawsuits filed by their teachers for nonpayment. Gone are the heyday of cram schools branching out in Japan and the exorbitant fee they charged for tuition. However, the education businesses will continue to exist as long as they meet the demands of parents to enter their youngsters in universities that could guarantee them future employment.

Examination hell phenomenon may dissipate in the near future as the Ministry of Education has taken steps to incorporate creative teaching into the school curriculum, a few colleges and universities have replaced standard multiple-choice tests with essay-style examinations and interviews, and a growing number of companies have changed their employment procedures by hiring graduates based on their job related-skills instead of on the reputation of schools from which they graduated. For now, examination hell phenomenon still exerts its grip on society as most Japanese believe that the students from top schools will best the economic crunch.

(First published on, 2004)