How Tough Is It To Get Into College In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jacob asked:

I have watched many anime where there is generally a male student who is studying to take his college exam that has failed one or multiple times to get in. One of the best examples I can think of is from the dub of Shin Chan where one of their apartment neighbors has failed many times and has become a shut in NEET Otaku. It makes me wonder do people like this really exist where they spend all year studying to get into college post high school? From my experience, most people apply to a few colleges and will be accepted by at least one or at least attend a community college until the following year. Where does this stereotype character come from?

Getting into college in Japan can be pretty rough. While there is a standardized, multiple-choice test that is accepted by the country's public colleges and some private ones (The "National Center Test for University Admissions"), scoring well enough on that exam simply gets you in the door for consideration. Once you're past that barrier, each college has its own entrance exam (which usually involves essay writing), and for which prospective students have to study intensely.

This means that applying for multiple colleges is very tough, because for every exam you take, that's yet another thing to study for ON TOP of your regular school work. Applying is also expensive, as fees to take the admissions tests can range from ¥12,000 (~$120) for the partial Center Test to ¥35,000 (~$350) per department for some private universities. Add to that the costs of cram school and private tutors, travel and hotel accomodations for away schools, and the average student ends up spending ¥231,900 (~$2,319) during the whole process. It's one of the most competitive systems in the world. As hard as that is, the quest to get into high schools is actually though to be WORSE. (Mandatory education ends with 9th grade in Japan, though 94% do go on to high school.)

Since getting into a good school is so competitive and kids are encouraged to apply for the best schools they can get into, it wasn't uncommon for them to try and fail to get into ANY of them. Some would put all their eggs in one basket and completely blow it. Others would put out even more effort and money to take the test for more than one and faceplant across the board. Rather than go to a low-end remedial school, many would take a gap year and try again. During that time, they would be referred to as a "ronin" (the old term for a master-less samurai) and devote themselves to studying for next year's exam. Yusaku Godai of Maison Ikkoku was the most famous anime ronin for many years, but few fans know that show today.

That break-neck period of horrible stress, studying all-nighters and cram school that happens in the late winter of 9th and 12th grades is known as "examination hell," and it's often referred to as the worst memory many Japanese people have of growing up. There's a documented increase in teen suicide around that time of year, and many kids struggle with the stress. The good news is that in recent years, with Japan's population decreasing, schools have become far less competitive. The very top tier schools are still very tough to get into, obviously, but many schools have started taking in more applying students in order to keep their seats full. So "ronin" is a word that gets used less and less often these days.

And some kids don't need to take entrance exams at all! Some get in thanks to recommendations from teachers, while others attend an "escalator schools," in which all kids automatically move on to an affiliated school at the next level.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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