As Americans, many decisions we make are reversible or at least amendable. In Japan, however, the history of the country has created a social institution in which your ability on an examination determines a multitude of your future opportunities and perceived success in life. The burden to perform, and perform well, on these exams is a heavy weight for many students within Japanese high school society.
Compared to Japan, entrance into colleges and universities in the United States is more holistic; taking in factors such as extra-curricular activities and various other aspects of an application. The United States also has a variety of ways to achieve this kind of success, whether that be through a university, junior college, or technical training, greatly reducing the amount of overall stress that is placed on the high school graduating population. By basing the success in life on success on an exam, Japanese students are placed in a much more precarious situation emotionally than their American counterparts who have other multiple opportunities to achieve their versions of accomplishment.
To understand why the Japanese place so much importance on this exam, we must first understand the benefits that come from getting a university level education, both perceived and real. A statistical study of various employment branches showed that the vast majority of those managers and people with high occupational ranks were graduates of most of the prestigious universities (Rohlen 88). Those who did not go to prestigious universities were invariably at the bottom of most of the social structures within those work environments (Rohlen 88). These same studies showed that the circulation mobility, the level of difficulty in moving between positions, was also negatively impacted by low educational attainment. In those same companies, people without the desired level education were regularly passed over for those with it, thus creating a cycle of “haves” and “have-nots”. One can understand how this would weigh heavily on a students mind while taking the examination.
To essentially have your career determined in a few short hours creates a very high anxiety level which can be extremely unhealthy (Sapolsky, McGonigal 2003)1. Paradoxically, in viewing the American college application process, most students do not view an exam, such as the SAT, as a life altering event. Even though it has been proven that those individuals with a higher degree level do, on average, receive higher pay, it is not as pronounced as in Japan. Work ethics in the United States encourage people to prove their self-worth, providing hope to those who may not necessarily have a university degree. If they are effective workers and leaders, there will likely be a way for them to increase their social mobility. The stress associated with applying to college in America is lessened because most students do not, at the onset of college, have preconceived plans of their future employment in mind.
The American ideal of independence and self-determination also contributes to the fact that in the United States, as compared to Japan, the “avenues to success” are much more varied in their direction. Instead of the common social goal of attaining a prestigious degree, less unorthodox methods have been employed, such as starting your own company, family businesses, community colleges, joining the military and professional certification in various trades.
This point is illustrated in Jane Gross’ article on three high school seniors applying for college, “Jed understands, dimly, how foolish this is. ‘My dad went to Brooklyn College and he’s a perfectly happy, successful doctor'” (1:2). Since in Japan, the prospect of anything other than a university education is summarily shunned upon (Rohlen 43), the students are left with little else to concentrate on other than the college entrance exam. If they fail that exam, the consequences can be devastating because they equate the test as their only hope for “real” success and they may be relegated to what they consider menial labor (Rohlen 30-31).
The United States brand of individualism also surfaces itself in how the actual criterion for entrance into college is judged. In Japan, the test, and the test alone, is the sole determinant of your abilities to do college level work (Rohlen 94). This has helped the Japanese people because it is the supreme leveling of the playing field (Rohlen 61). A test is the most objective form of admittance and no attention whatsoever is given to high school grades or extracurricular activities (Rohlen 92). This means that the focus of a Japanese student’s life is given to the test; any and all other things take a back seat because they have no intrinsic value in gaining admittance to their prized university. This is a dramatic contrast to how the American higher education system goes about its admittance procedures.
In comparison to the Japanese model, the American system may seem highly biased and subjective. The applicant is treated “holistically” and all the things that make up that person and who they have become are taking into account. This may include, but is not limited to, high school grades, extracurricular activities, and leadership positions held while attending school (Stanford Facts: 2003 14). By using this much more subjective avenue when applying to school, the Americans are much more able to have a tangible control over their destiny as it applies to getting into college. Guidance counselors, teachers, and parents are all in the business of putting the best “face” on their students so they can get accepted, once again referring to the Gross study, “One thing that transcends class lines is the phenomenon of packaging, with students shrewdly massaging their resumes and counselors, playing the role of political spin doctors, relentlessly marketing them” (1:1).
By having this seeming control over their college application, the stress that those applicants go through is noticeably less than their Japanese counterparts who have only three hours or so to prove their worth to that college. The ability to apply to multiple colleges also allows the American student much more leeway in their college experiences. As multiple college acceptance letters role in, the only thing that the American students have to choose is, “Which one?” In Gross’ article, she cites an example of the reaction a family has when they receive news of a college rejection, “Jed’s father shrugged it off, puzzled by friends who expected him to be crushed. ‘Jed has incredible choices,’ Dr. Resnick said. ‘He’ll get into one of them'” (2:6).
The comparison that can be drawn is that the Japan higher education system is much more demand based, with the demand for the university far exceeding the supply of opportunities, while in the United States, the supply of viable universities allows any able bodied student to get into some university somewhere as long as they demonstrate abilities in at least one area. The Japanese are not afforded that luxury. Due to the fact that most of the entrance exams take place on the same day and are costly, most students and their families must choose carefully the one or two exams which to take (Rohlen 83). If they are unsuccessful in their efforts, they will be forced to retake the test another year.
As a culmination of all of the external and internal pressures and stressors, the Japanese examination has had a corollary effect on teen suicides in Japan. Although it has been proven that the tests do not actually cause suicide, they do have a noticeable impact on the Japanese suicide rate (Rohlen 333). Even if the pressure and stress of preparing for the college entrance exam does not manifest itself in the form of suicide or other psychological disorders, those stressors are still counterproductive to the general well-being of the students. This is not to lessen the pressures of applying to college in the United States, but to say that the value placed on the college entrance exams is weighted much more heavily in Japan.
Multiple factors, such as limitations on the number of colleges to which a student can apply, the importance placed on the exam, the long term consequences, and the negative psychological impact of the exam and application process contribute to the stress Japanese applicants experience when they apply to college. All of these aspects can be directly linked to the social institution that has developed in Japan, one in which proficiency on the exam has long lasting and profound impact on ones social status. The American college application process, although stressful in its own right, does not have any comparable singular event, such as the entrance exam, that has such far-reaching implications. The effects of the exam process on those Japanese students as they become adults and assimilate into their meritorious society are worth studying.
Gross, Jane. “Different Lives, One Goal: Finding the Key to College.” New York Times 5 May
—. “Preparing Applications, Fine-Tuning Applicants.” New York Times 6 May 2002.
—. “At Last, Colleges Answer, And New Questions Arise.” New York Times 7 May 2002.
McGonigal, Kelly. “Health Psychology.” Lecture at Stanford University. Stanford, California. 3
Rohlen, Thomas. Japan’s High Schools. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Sapolsky, Robert. “Stress, Biological and Psychological Reactions.” Lecture at Stanford
University. Stanford, California. 1 Nov. 2003
Stanford Facts: 2003 Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.