I walk gingerly over to a group of parents sitting in the back of the room at an exam prep school. Taro is having a trial class. The cram school is checking him out before offering enrollment. They don’t want a kid who will disrupt the class. They do want a kid who will get into a good school so they can boast about that in their brochures. I take a seat at the end of the parents’ row and pray that Taro will sit through class obediently. I see him eyeing this new, hushed environment. The other children, about ten of them, are already practice-dressed for exam day, wearing white polo shirts and navy-blue shorts or skirts. They sit with backs straight, hands on their laps and papers in the middle of their desks with two sharpened pencils to the right, lead facing forward. Taro’s hands dangle by his sides. A matronly teacher walks in. “Where is your pencil, Taro?” she asks. He breaks into a coy smile and pulls one out from behind his ear. The teacher laughs. I suppress a grin. The other parents remain silent.
“What happens from here depends on how much effort the mother puts in,” the teacher tells me in her office after class. In other words, how quickly can I bring Taro up to speed on the drill sheets, and can I whip him into shape to sit through the hour-long written test and to perform in the group behavior exams? Suddenly, Taro, who had been instructed to stay in the adjacent room, comes bounding in and jumps onto my lap, his dirty sneakers touching the sofa’s edge along the way. When I tell him to wait until I finish talking, he repeatedly shouts in English, “Excuse me, Mama,” so happy to try out the phrase I had just taught him to use when interrupting adults. Since our move back from Beijing to Tokyo, Taro had lost the Chinese he had learned there from his nanny and the English he had spoken with his dad and spoke only Japanese now, so I had been trying to re-teach him English, phrase by phrase. But right now, the focus is on the wild boy in the civilized cram school. I can’t yell at him because then I’d come across as an out-of-control parent. The teacher gives us a cold and knowing smile, and we leave as quickly as possible. My heart is heavy, but Taro is high from his release. He holds my hand and pulls ahead, and I can feel the skip in his step.
The exam prep schools are called juku, and they are part of the boundless, multi-billion-dollar ojyuken industry that converts every parental anxiety into a business opportunity. In addition to the cram schools and tutoring services, children can sharpen their test skills at mock examinations and overnight study retreats. Department stores sell an array of exam-appropriate clothing and accessories. There are the conservative dark-blue suits and dresses for moms, some with discreet pockets to store an amulet from a temple purported to protect the bearer and bring good fortune. There are foldable slippers to wear in classrooms since outdoor shoes are removed at schools. You can always borrow from the school’s supply, but that signals to everyone how careless you were to forget your own. There are dark-blue umbrellas with fitted carry bags to place them in so you don’t drip rainwater on the floor of your dream school, and tiny cotton covers to elegantly couch tissue packs. (Every child is expected to have tissues in one pocket and a handkerchief in the other.) Bookstores have shelves devoted to drill books, school rankings, samples of previous test questions, and how-to-publications with titles like The 125 Things You Need to Know About Elementary School Entrance Exams.
After several rejections, we finally found a juku that would take us in. A mother from Taro’s soccer class had felt sorry for me and referred us to the cram school her son attended. Sakura, which means cherry blossom, was located in a dark studio apartment in an aging building one block back from a busy city street.
“It’s really too late,” said the principal, who appeared to be in her sixties. “But I guess if you are Matsui-san’s introduction I will have to accept you.”
She handed me an invoice for $700 dollars to cover registration, one month’s tuition, textbooks, and utilities. There was also a sheet that listed the juku rules that included this entry: “If Sakura concludes that the mother is emotionally unstable, we will ask you to withdraw.”
Taro began attending Sakura twice a week. The cram school’s touted “private instruction” meant three teachers, each seated in front of a single student, squeezed into one of the two small rooms going over drill sheets and sample tests. Most schools gave athletic exams, too, and for that practice the teacher would gauge Taro’s coordination in the same tiny room, instructing for example, “Hop in one place on your left foot!” and count, stopwatch in hand, while he bobbed up and down next to a desk, his pageboy-style hair fluttering about.
Each school administers its own unique exams, but they generally include written, art, athletic, and behavioral components—plus an interview. The written tests have a variety of formats. In listening comprehension, children hear a recording of a story followed by questions. For example, they might hear:
Hanako-san went to meet her father. At the crosswalk, she passed a man wearing a white hat. There was a man wearing a sweater and glasses sitting on a park bench. A man wearing a tie got off the bus. There was a man with a mustache by the mailbox. Her father was waiting at the train station.
Which one is Hanako-san’s father
And then be shown a picture of five men, each dressed differently. One is wearing a white hat, two have glasses, another has a tie, and another a mustache. The kids have to remember that the dad had none of these and select the figure not wearing any of those items.
That’s actually an extremely short example. Many recorded stories run for about five minutes, and the children don’t take notes. While some of the five- and six-year-old examinees have already been taught by their parents to read and write, the tests are administered on the premise that the children are not yet literate. They respond by marking the illustration that corresponds to the right answer. Listening comprehension turned out to be Taro’s strongest area.
Many tests assumed an understanding of scientific concepts well beyond the child’s age level. How does the level of liquid in a glass change if you put blocks inside? After putting a sugar cube in different amounts of water, which drink is the sweetest? How many eggs remain if a farmer removes one on rainy days, two on sunny days, none when it’s cloudy, and there are three sunny days followed by one rainy day and one cloudy one?
There was a test category called joshiki or “common sense” with various sub-sections like “common sense about nature” or “common sense of the seasons” in which children needed to match rice-planting and swallows’ nests with springtime and watermelons and cicadas with the summer.
“Remember Taro, there’re seven dots on a ladybug,” a teacher shouted after us as we were leaving class one day. Most urbanites had to learn such nature trivia from books, although the more motivated ojyuken parents arranged study trips to the countryside or sent their children to sleepover cram camps in rural areas.
Most nerve-wracking for parents was the “common sense on daily life” category that tested manners and housekeeping skills, both reflecting how the child had been raised and exposing any slovenly habits learned at home. Taro got a C in table setting on one practice test because “he tossed all of the plates when distributing them,” according to the teacher’s report. “Please have him actually set the table at home for review.” Ouch! The test was a referendum on my parenting skills, and I’d been caught out. It was true that after an exhausting day I would lay the spread myself at full speed (maybe I was tossing plates?) rather than let Taro help me. And now we would both pay the price for my impatience.
In one session, the children were put into groups and given a picnic sheet, a large bottle of tea, a box of cookies and some cups and plates. They were expected to serve each other politely and insist that others eat and drink before them, just as well-mannered Japanese adults do so endlessly. The schools were looking for kids not just clever on paper but also polite and considerate. Any number of these tasks could appear in an exam. And the mothers had to polish their products by November.
The art tests assessed proficiency in drawing pictures and making crafts, many of which were tedious, presumably to test patience and dexterity. Taro loathed chigiri-e, a traditional Japanese art where pictures are created by gluing hand-torn pieces of fibrous washi paper onto a sheet.
“You mustn’t just rip the paper,” the Sakura principal told Taro, holding up a purple sheet to demonstrate.
“You have to use your nails to carefully, gently tear away the pieces,” she said, as she creased a line down the paper with her nails. Origami, an examiner’s favorite, was another weak area for my restless boy. While other children could quickly produce cranes (nineteen folds) and water lilies (twenty-eight folds), Taro, after months, mastered only the piano (ten folds) and the peasant (twelve folds without the trousers). His crayon sketch of a blue train on gray grass—an unschooled depiction of a family trip to northern Japan—earned a D-minus on a practice test. My five-year-old’s GPA was already plummeting.
The sports section judged skills like jumping rope, bouncing a ball, skipping, and other agile maneuvers. Being athletic, Taro did well on these, but the tests posed the additional challenge of how well children could follow and remember instructions. There could be a complicated obstacle course where, for example, you twirl a hula hoop twice, then dribble a ball up to one goal, and from there hop to the next destination.
In the group activity screening, the children would be divided into teams and told to solve a task together. They might be given some paper, chopsticks, wire, glue, and scissors and be asked to make a pond and pretend they are fishing. Perhaps there would be fewer tools than children to see how well they shared, and schools were always watching to see how the kids handled equipment. Do you give the scissors to your friend with the blades facing respectfully toward you rather than pointing dangerously at the recipient? Do you pass things on politely using both hands? And when you are done do you leave everything on the floor, which suggests that at home mom puts away the toys, or do you gather them neatly in a corner, revealing a good upbringing?
“You see?” I remember saying to Taro in one of our typical attempts at tackling Sakura’s daily homework assignments. For what seemed like the tenth time that evening, I shoved a baseball cap sideways on Taro’s head and pointed to the mirror that I had placed before him. “The brim is on the opposite side.” We were practicing a test question where the children would be shown a picture of a reflection in a mirror of a child wearing a cap sideways and then presented with two pictures of the same child but with the brims in different directions. Which is the accurate reflection? I wasn’t trying to explain scientific theory. I just wanted Taro to memorize that reflections appear opposite so he could check the correct box on the test. But Taro never got it. He barely knew right from left, for that matter. I couldn’t think of a way to get Taro to master this question other than to repeat the process over and over again. Show him the mirror, point to the brim on his head, point to the brim in the mirror, exclaim with enthusiasm that the brim appears in the opposite direction in reflections.
To my growing irritation, Taro didn’t seem to be trying. He squirmed in his chair, dangled his legs, slumped over on the table, and shouted out any answer.
“This one!” I was momentarily thrilled with a correct reply, only to realize he had made a lucky guess.
“Look carefully. Don’t you get it?” I shouted, forcefully pressing the cap down on his head.
“I quit!” Taro said and raced out of the room. I ran after him and grabbed him and dragged him back to the table. It was like this nearly every time.
In September, two months before the exams, I enrolled Taro in a second cram school that was well known for athletic test prep and its thirty-something male teacher, whom the mothers certified a “charisma coach” for the hold he had on his pupils. I dutifully followed the other moms when they went into groupie mode and crowded around coach’s parked car to examine the SUV’s model and the type of car seats he had for his kids. The teacher’s control over the students was impressive, as was the discipline and agility of the children. If the teacher shouted, “crocodile!” the forty or so children instantly dropped down prone on the gleaming gymnasium floor and crawled forward, leaning on forearms to pull themselves ahead. They looked like little Navy SEALs-in-training. In addition to crocodile, there were bear, seal, rabbit, and frog movements that apparently each displayed an aspect of strength and coordination for examiners to judge.
Shortly after he started the class, Taro tried to get other kids to join him in clowning around, making silly poses when he should have been standing straight and waiting for the next command. Such class clowning had always elicited giggles from his friends at day care, but here, no one was enticed. The teacher asked him, “Yataro-kun. Do you want to be part of this exercise? Are you ready to join us?” Charisma coach’s tone was calm, but being singled out in front of the large group appeared to overwhelm Taro. He stood stiffly and managed a tiny nod as tears welled up in his eyes. From the parents’ observation section in the bleachers, I ached for his embarrassment. And also for my own.
The sports juku gave me a list of sixty things Taro should master. It included items like skipping rhythmically, doing consecutive somersaults, bouncing a ball twenty times in a row, and more complex stunts like walking across a balance beam holding a ladle with a ball in it. Further, to show good upbringing, Taro should know how to fold pajamas while ironing out any creases by hand, separate garbage for recycling, wring out all the droplets from a wet hand towel, hang laundry with clothespins, and tie a bow. Taro could manage a very loose bow but certainly not without looking, a feat some schools were rumored to require. One desperate mother wrote to a chat room devoted to entrance examinations that her son had not mastered tying his apron behind his back: “We have tried several times, but each time cannot do it and get so disheartened.” Her woes prompted one empathetic mother to share the joy of her own son’s triumph: “My son also couldn’t do it so we trained hard . . . just last night at dinner when he was helping out, he was suddenly wearing an apron. I thought, ‘no way,’ but looked in the back, and the bow was there. I was so moved I hugged him.” Only in this frenzied ojyuken world could apron strings stir up such passion.