an exam
Japan’s entrance exam known as the National Center Test for University Admissions was launched in 1990. There were 574,344 applicants for the 2013 national test for university admissions, up 17,807 from the previous year. A total of 840 colleges and universities (163 public and 520 private universities amd 157 two-year colleges) use the standardized test.

The examination system was imported from Europe to Japan following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, and in the 1920s the term “examination hell” represented the fierce competition for academic middle schools and high schools, though only a few elite went to college (Amano 1990:xii). During the Occupation after World War II, college admissions were based on high school records, a standard aptitude test, and entrance examinations by individual colleges. Entrance examinations given by each college primarily determined admissions. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

From 1949 to 1954 and from 1963 to 1968, a national examination was required, but as the universities did not trust the results, the examination never became as influential as the government had hoped. National universities based their admissions primarily through entrance examinations and secondarily from school recommendations. All national universities were divided into two groups so that applicants could apply for two national universities and as many private colleges as they wished. ~

Since 1979, the National Universal Test of seven courses from five academic subjects was introduced to ease competition in entrance exams. All national universities were required to consider the universal test in admission decision. Since the students had only one chance for national universities rather than two after the introduction of the National Universal Test, the reform did not have the intended effect. Instead, competition for private colleges increased. In 1987, the National Universal Test was revised to cover five academic subjects. Each university can choose which subjects it takes into consideration. All national universities were again divided into two groups so that the students could apply for two national universities. In 1989, that system was abolished. All national universities currently have two entrance examination periods so that the students can take the entrance examinations twice. ~

In 1990, the Central Test for college admissions was introduced, and private universities can also use the test. In 1990, 14.3 percent of high school seniors took the Central Test. After more private universities adopted the Central Test, one-fourth of high school seniors took the Central Test in 1996 (Ogawa 2000:112). Since 2004, junior colleges have used the Central Test. Starting in 2004, most national universities have assigned seven courses from five academic subjects rather than the five academic subjects of the Central Test. ~

In 2003, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of high school graduates went on to higher education, including colleges (44.6 percent; 42.7 percent for boys and 46.6 percent for girls) and specialized training colleges (18.9 percent; 16.1 percent for boys and 21.7 percent for girls). On the other hand, 16.6 percent went to work, while 10.3 percent entered neither colleges, specialized training colleges nor the workforce (Monbukagakusho- 2004a). The enrollment rate of colleges has increased among students from non-metropolitan areas since 1975, when the government began to establish new colleges all over Japan (Aramaki 2000:30-31). However, though decreasing, regional discrepancies are still striking. Only one-third of high school graduates in the northern and southern prefectures attended college. In contrast, half of all high school graduates in the urban prefectures and the western prefectures attended (Monbukagakusho- 2004a). Since almost half of all high school graduates enter college, admission into colleges, with the exception of the most competitive colleges, is possible. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Exam Hell in Japan

The focus of Japanese education in the minds of many parents and young people is on preparing students for two important tests: one at the end of ninth grade, which determines whether a student goes to a vocational school, a first-rate public college-preparatory high school, a second rate high school or an expensive private school; and another at the end of the 12th grade to gain entrance to university.

The long hours of study for these exams is called "examination hell" and the expression "four hours pass, five hours fail" refers to the amount of sleep that can make or break a student studying for these tests. During exam hell some Japanese students describe how their friend's faces get thinner and thinner and flecks of grey sometimes appear in their hair. Students often lug home 20 pounds of books every night to study and are fed bananas because their parents have been told that bananas help their minds. Mothers go to special Shinto shrines to pray for their success.

In the weeks leading up to the college entrance exams in January it is sometimes difficult to get a room in local hotels because the rooms are all taken by families of students, who need to focus their attention on studying. Sakura saku (“cherry blossoms in full bloom”) is a term frequently used to congratulate those who pass their exams and can enjoy a “flowering spring” after working very hard.

Daruma dolls---dolls with wide open eyes and fierce scowl that are intended to keep evil spirits and demons away and bring good luck and whose closed eyes are rubbed open to bring the good luck---are bought by students preparing to take school entrance exams.

Japanese Researchers Develop Exam-Taking Robot

In November 2013, Danielle Demetriou wrote in The Telegraph, “An exam-taking robot is being developed in Japan with the goal of being able to pass the nation's toughest university examinations. The robot – dubbed the "artificial brain" – is being created as part of a government collaboration between its National Institute of Informatics (NII) and Japan's leading technology companies. The aim of the project is to successfully pass the famously difficult entrance examinations to the University of Tokyo (Todai), a suitably high benchmark as it is widely renowned as one of the best academic establishments in Asia. [Source: Danielle Demetriou, The Telegraph, November 26, 2013 ==]

“The robot recently took its first sample maths tests from the university's entrance examinations and scored correctly in four out of ten questions, according to its creators. The long-term goal of the artificial intelligence system – known as the Todai Robot Project - is for the robot to pass the entrance exams with "high marks" by 2016, and eventually cross the threshold required for admission by 2021. ==

“The project, masterminded by the NII, collaborates with a string of Japanese technology companies, including Fujitsu, which is responsible for the maths test, and IBM, which is focusing on the history section. In a reflection of a general growing interest in the commercial viability of artificial intelligence, the project is being developed by scientists for use on a laptop computer, rather than a one-off supercomputer. ==

Describing the recent sample testing, Fujitsu said in a statement: "This attempt at an actual practice test serves to evaluate the progress of research results to date, and to identify technical issues to be addressed by future research and development work." The Todai Robot Project was launched two years ago by the NII with the aim of unifying various categories of artificial intelligence into a single system. The project incorporates an array of artificial intelligence technologies, from language skills and reading in addition to more complex emotional understanding, analysis and creative expression. ==

Exams to Get Into University in Japan

a well-organized desk
Most universities have two rounds of entrance exams, and applicants are given two chances to take the exams. The first exam, which all students take at the same time, decides whether they get into the university. The second round of exams are specific to the university which the student wishes to attend. These exams determines what subjects a student can study there. The students with the highest scores attend the best universities and study subjects like medicine and law.

The first round of university entrance exams are given over two days in mid January. Students choose six out of 31 subjects based on the requirements of the universities they wish to enter. The second stage are held in late January. After the first round of tests is finished the answers are run in newspapers and test-takers can figure out their score, which they are officially notified of in a few weeks. Students never find out the results for the second round of tests. The tests are designed to be as objective as possible and evaluate students strictly in terms of merit.

The 2011 two-day unified college entrance examinations, known as the National Center Test, was given at 706 venues. In 2009, a entrance exam was given at 738 test centers with a record 797 schools required students to take the national university entrance exam. A total of 543,981 students took the test. In 2007, a 664 universities---507 private universities and all 157 national and public university---plus 148 junior colleges required students to take the exam. A total of 553,352 students took it.

In the old days many universities had their own admissions tests and students who applied to several universities took several tests. As of 2003, all the national universities and 70 percent of the private universities began using a standardized test.

The university entrance exams are pretty much the sole criteria for getting into college: grades and extra curricular activities are ultimately not very important. The exams are usually administered in large halls or classrooms where up to hundreds of applicants pine away in hushed silence. They are mostly multiple-choice achievement (not aptitude) tests presumably based on what they learned in 12 years of school. The question are often quite complicated and require thoughtful step by step reasoning. In the English section, students often have to translate English statements into Japanese and then summarize their meaning.

On Japan's competitive entrance examinations, Eiichi Negishi, a 2010 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, said, "One can meet a high-level challenge, and then come out as a winner," he said. "And in Japan, of course, we have very severe college entrance examinations, about which people speak in negative terms. But I think that is, in a way, a very useful thing for those who have these high aspirations. You need to see that you can do it, and that you will eventually come out a winner."

Content of Exams to Get Into University in Japan

The national university exam is given over two days---on a Saturday and Sunday---in January. On the first day the test takers take a test covering four categories: 1) geography/history; 2) Japanese language; 3) a foreign language, in most cases English; and 4) Komin (literally “public citizens), with question pertaining to ethics, politics, economics and modern society. The test on the second day is mostly math and science.

The national university entrance exam, known as the Center Shiken, is offered by the National Center of University Entrance. In 2006 a new-style university exam was introduced, with listening comprehension tested using an iPod-like listening devices. It was designed for a new “cram-free” curriculum taught at schools and was used by 594 national, public and private universities and 133 junior colleges.

In January 2008, the two-day unified entrance exams for universities was given at 736 test centers, with 777 universities and colleges taking part. In 2007, some students had to retake the English listening portion of the national university exam because of glitches with integrated circuit on listening devices used by the test-takers.

Students and University Exams in Japan

Only about a forth of all students pass the college entrance exam. Students that fail usually try again the next year after attending special prep schools. Such students are called ronin, literally "masterless samurai," and they are so numerous they are measured in government statistics.

In 2006, 551,382 students took the exam at 721 locations, down 18,568 from the previous year. In 2003, 602,887 students took the exam at 693 locations. Of these 72.6 percent were taking it for the first time and 26.2 percent had taken it at least once before. The number of high school graduates has been steadily declining while the percentage of high school students taking the test has risen.

These days more and more universities are starting to take other things into consideration, not just the exams. In 1999, Tokyo University's medical department included personal interviews on the first round of entrance exams for the first time. During the exam applicants were asked question what they would about donating the organs of a loved one.

English teachers complain that the tests only prepare students to take tests and doesn’t prepare them to speak or understand English in real-life situations.

University Entrance Exams in and 2012 and 2013

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “In 2012, there were several mistakes during the exams, which are used by many universities as part of their screening process. For example, while a pair of test books were supposed to be distributed to examinees at the same time last year, only one of the two books was distributed in 81 venues nationwide. There were other kinds of mistakes in 48 venues, affecting more than 7,000 applicants across the nation. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri, January 19, 2013 /*\]

“An investigation found that teachers who supervised the exams did not take their duties seriously enough. According to the center, only about 50 percent of relevant universities reported that their teachers had diligently attended briefing sessions for test supervisors, while 24 percent said they had merely provided written documents for supervisors who did not attend such sessions.The University of Nagasaki, which made errors in distributing test books in its three test venues last year, planned to rehearse distributing test books for the categories of "geography and history" and "civics". A pair of test books packed in one bag have 300 pages, so the university planned to check whether its female test supervisors could distribute the test books on time. The university's test supervisors are supposed to confirm with each other whether the test books are distributed as scheduled. Even with such careful measures, an official at the university said, "We must maintain our concentration until the last minute." Hokkaido University also made errors in distributing test books, causing 190 examinees to have to resit the exams, the highest in the nation. It also increased the number of briefing sessions for test supervisors of the university, to two, and prepared its own written documents to help its teachers supervise the exams. /*\

“For examinees who choose to take two subjects from among the "geography and history" and "civics" categories, or two from the "science" category, the total test time will be 130 minutes. Due to the long test time, some examinees visited the restroom together while exam papers were collected during the test time, an act that prompted suspicion. To prevent such behavior, assistant supervisors will accompany examinees to the restroom to supervise them. Tokyo International University will only allow examinees to enter the bathroom one at a time, so that supervisors "will be able to supervise the inside of the restroom to prevent students from cheating," an official at the university said. /*\

Organizers Forget to Pass out Test Books, 4,565 Affected by Test Mistake

In January 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “More than 4,500 students were affected by mistakes in distributing test books during unified college entrance exams this past weekend, it has been learned. As a result, the testing time for subjects in geography and history, and civics was extended for some students at nine sites, out of a total of 709 sites nationwide. If delays in the start of testing are included, 4,565 test takers at 58 sites nationwide were affected by the mistakes, according to the center. This is the largest such problem to occur involving the unified tests. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 17, 2011]

“Students who chose to take tests in two subjects in social studies have a choice within the categories of geography and history, and civics. Students can choose two subjects from one category, or one subject from each. In a number of cases in which students had chosen one subject from geography and history, and another from civics, test books for geography and history were distributed at the outset of testing, but organizers forgot to distribute the civics test books until after testing started. [Ibid]

“We're sorry the balance was disrupted," the National Center for University Entrance Examinations said. Fairness in testing appears likely to become an issue. Test times were extended by 10 minutes or more at sites managed by Shizuoka University, the University of Nagasaki, the Hokkaido University of Education, Gunma University, Shimane University, Kagoshima University and Okinawa International University. A total of 480 students took tests at these sites. [Ibid]

“At locations where test books were handed out late, the original first-half 60-minute test time was extended from 10 to 48 minutes, including testing of students only being examined in geography and history, according to the center. The longest extension, of 48 minutes, took place at Shizuoka Prefectural Fuji High School, where testing was managed by Shizuoka University. [Ibid]

In 2001, it was revealed that Yamagata, Yoyama and Kanazawa universities rejected 450 applicants who should have been accepted due errors made by computers in grading entrance exams and a lack of human oversight.

Examinee Disqualified for Leaving the Room with Test Booklet During Exam

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A 19-year-old has been disqualified from the national centre test for university admissions for smuggling out a test booklet and passing it to a cram school teacher, the National Center for University Entrance Examinations said. According to the centre and other sources, the examinee told the proctor that she wanted to leave the exam room at Kwassui University in Nagasaki at 10:30 a.m., 30 minutes after the start of a geography, history and civics exam. After leaving, she handed the booklet to a cram school teacher who was waiting for her near the gate. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , January 22, 2013 \+\]

“The proctor noticed a booklet was missing a few minutes after the examinee left the room. After finding her in a study room at the university, the proctor asked her where the booklet went. But as she did not say to whom she gave it, the university called the police. According to the Nagasaki prefectural police, the examinee claims she was not aware that taking a booklet outside the test room during an exam is forbidden. The cram school teacher allegedly did not think the examinee would be breaking the rules, saying, "I wanted to make an answer sheet so my students could score their own performances as soon as possible." \+\

“The police do not plan to press charges as the incident was a minor offence. When an examinee leaves an exam room, the proctor is expected to ask their reason for leaving and make the examinee put the booklet on their desk. After the examinee leaves, exam staff should supervise them until the end of the exam. \+\

Problems and Weaknesses with the Japanese University Entrance System

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in the Education in Japan website, “The negative effects of the over-reliance on standardized test scores, as well as of the competitiveness of and rigidity of the Japanese entrance exam system on student learning – have been noted in the 2009 paper by Dennis Riches, “The practices of university admissions and entrance examinations: Their impact on learning and educational programs“. [Source:Aileen Kawagoe, Education in Japan website, April 16, 2013 *-*]

Riches roots strongly for Japan’s reform of university entrance exam practices drawing upon the American experience with: “a growing movement in America to reduce or eliminate reliance on SAT scores and admit students based on their high school record, or other skills and achievements. Pink, for example, describes new methods of assessing “right brain” creative problem solving to be used in formal admissions screening. An organization in Boston, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has been advocating in favor of reform of university admissions since 2002, and it has already been influential in the few years of its existence. All of the schools that have abandoned reliance on standardized test scores report improved student satisfaction and performance, and improved reputation of the institution. A skeptic would notice that few elite universities are in this group, but this is beside the point. This is an innovation that is useful to the second and mid-ranking universities who want to give the best education possible to the students they actually get, not the ones they wish they could have.” *-*

“Riches also levels other criticisms such as the problem of lack of open scrutiny or transparency of the entrance exam creation process and the lack of training of test developers (rendering the possibility that entrance exams may be unreliable or invalid tests) “If universities still want to insist that prospective students take a difficult examination, they could rely on specialized test producers that have the resources to make reliable and valid tests that are open to public scrutiny. This would allow professors to devote more time to teaching and research in their specialties. Yet this would also require the individual professors and the universities to forego the financial incentives involved in holding entrance examinations. Unfortunately, most universities are stuck on having their own branded examination as a way of signaling to the public that their standards are difficult to attain. *-*

“Riches gives several reasons why exam reforms such as introducing greater flexibility such as AO exams would have a beneficial effect: “High school graduates in Japan have already completed standardized national achievement tests and received grades and diplomas from a standardized national education system. Making them take entrance examinations is just overkill, or it is an admission that universities consider the public education system to be unreliable. Whether students succeed at university depends on the quality of their experience after entering university, and such quality is much more likely to be achieved if students have not experienced a phenomenon which their society refers to as “entrance exam hell.” *-*

“Riches also criticizes of the validity of Japanese entrance exams due to the opaque test design process and their overreliance of multiple-choice questions: “Much worse is test design in which validity is not explicitly defined. Unfortunately, the situation at Japanese universities is that values and priorities are implicit and unexamined, buried in the traditional way of designing English tests. When validity does not exist, test results are only self-referential. A high score on a multiple choice grammar test tells only that the test taker is talented at this particular multiple choice grammar test. There is no evidence of a relation to skills that need to be applied in ‘real world’ situations.“ *-*

Reforming the Japanese University Entrance Exam

Despite reforms, the competition will continue as long as educational credentials from these colleges help graduates obtain better jobs, and the infrastructure of the college admission systems does not change. Students should be able to take written examinations for national universities more than once a year. In the 2000 proposal, the Central Education Committee suggested allowing students to take the national examination twice a year, and use their best scores over a three-year period. The national examination will be offered in December and January, starting in 2006 (AS April 29 2000). Written examinations are fairer and more objective than school recommendations. If students take exams several times over a long period, similar to the SAT and ACT in the United States, the scores are more reliable. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Furthermore, the implementation of college admissions quotas for transfer students and adult students give late bloomers another chance. Educational credentials are important because most companies look for educational credentials when they recruit college graduates. Partly because of the recession, the system of lifelong careers for full-time workers has come under scrutiny even in large companies. Practical abilities and skills have come to outweigh educational credentials as recruitment criteria. Professional certificates and technical skills can be obtained by students who study part-time at specialized training colleges, correspondence courses, evening schools, or even independent studies. These flexible routes to obtain higher status jobs or more desirable jobs may make the competition for college admission less intense. However, only those who have the money and time to study are able to get a second chance at going to a well-regarded college. ~

The survival of private colleges and junior colleges is a serious problem because of the drastically decreasing population of 18-year-olds, from a peak of 2.05 million in 1993 to 1.5 million in 2000, and a projected 1.2 million in 2010. Many colleges cannot obtain enough applicants to meet their admissions quotas. Enrollment in junior college has been decreasing even more rapidly. Private universities and junior colleges rely on school recommendations to fulfill admissions quotas. Four-year private universities use school recommendations for one-third of their admissions, while private junior colleges use recommendations from high schools for two-thirds of their admissions (Amano 1996:99, 106). ~

Universities are now considering the use of admission criteria other than test scores from examinations, such as extracurricular activities, volunteer activities, interviews, and written essays in order to obtain students from a wider variety of backgrounds. Some universities (130 colleges including three national universities in 2001) have begun to use an admissions office system to consider an applicant’s GPA, extracurricular activities, essays and interviews. They have also begun to promote outreach programs to high school students (Kuroki 1999:79-80; Ishi 2002:22-24). Additionally, many universities now welcome non-traditional students, and have created special admissions quotas for adult students, graduates from vocational high schools, and Japanese returnees from overseas. ~

Changing Admissions Procedures in Japan

Since 2000, the MOE has expanded the quota for college admissions through recommendations from 30 percent of successful applicants to 50 percent for four-year colleges, and from 50 percent to 100 percent for junior colleges (Nakamura 2000:39). Many colleges also have relaxed their admission standards for non-traditional students. The enrollment of adult and foreign students has been growing rapidly since the 1990s. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in the Education in Japan website, “Admissions Office or AO exams are not new in Japan, they have been introduced by a fair number of universities, but are sometimes viewed in a negative light as an easy route of student entry to universities with lower rankings or lesser reputations. A definition of AO entrance exams, for example, is given by Yamaguchi University as follows: “The Admissions Office Entrance Examination differs from traditional written exams that only look at academic ability in that applicants are selected based on their comprehension creative thinking abilities, academic ambitions and other factors. [Source:Aileen Kawagoe, Education in Japan website, April 16, 2013 *-*]

“An interview examines the applicant’s character, curiosity and interest in humanity, society, culture, language, logic and other subject matter covered in the humanities. A written test following a lecture examines the applicant’s comprehension of the lecture. As with the general exam, any student with the appropriate qualifications to enter university may take this examination.” *-*

Japanese Government Panel Calls for End to Knowledge-centric Exam

In November 2013, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The proposal by the government's Education Rebuilding Implementation Council to introduce a new type of test is aimed at rectifying the current situation in which test-takers are assessed by exams that put too much emphasis on their acquired knowledge rather than comprehensive ability. The panel also urges each university to adopt a multifaceted evaluation method when screening examinees. However, many high school and university officials are cautious toward introducing the new test, tentatively called an achievement test, as they are concerned about whether fairness can be ensured in screening examinees. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 2, 2013]

“The panel headed by Waseda University President Kaoru Kamata submitted a set of proposals to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regarding university entrance exam reform. The panel called for establishing basic and advanced level achievement tests to replace the current unified college entrance exams known as the National Center Test for University Admissions. The panel also called for discussions to utilize third-party foreign language proficiency tests.

Details about the new tests, including how they will be conducted, will be discussed at the Central Council for Education, an advisory panel for the education minister, with an eye toward introducing them in about five years. The basic-level achievement test will assess the basic academic ability of high school students while the advanced test will be used by universities to screen applicants. The panel has called for discussions to allow high school students to take both tests several times.

Debate Over the Reform of University Entrance Exam

Suvendrini Kakuchi wrote in University World, “Japan could soon see a new university entrance system to replace the current, highly competitive exam, which is regarded as rigid and inflexible. There has been intense debate over how the new testing system – which is likely to be more rigorous and based on academic performance and thinking skills – should develop. The issue is at the heart of an education reform campaign led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. According to Abe, Japan’s much-vaunted higher education system cannot meet the requirements of a rapidly globalising world and needs drastic changes to produce young people able to compete globally. [Source: Suvendrini Kakuchi, University World, September 14, 2013 Issue No:287 ////]

“According to reports, the likely focus of the council’s recommendations will be on stringent achievement assessment tests to be held several times annually for high school students, rather than the one ‘big bang’ high-stakes examination at the end of high school under the National Center Test for University Admissions. Ongoing discussions have also suggested a separate test and interview conducted at each university after individual exam scores are received. This will determine the student’s thinking skills, as well as enthusiasm and motivation. ////

“According to Masashi Kudo, an official at the Ministry of Education, “the goal of the new achievement test is to raise the academic ability of students”. Universities also accept students on the recommendation of high school principals, an entry system that is being increasingly followed as higher education institutions, especially two-year colleges, struggle to fill quotas and keep afloat financially. ////

“In 2012, high school recommendations comprised almost 35 percent of university admissions, with just 55.7 percent admitted through the competitive entrance exam. Another key change being considered is to raise English proficiency by possibly including TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam results as a university entry requirement, in a bid to encourage globalisation, experts said. ////

“Kazuo Maruyama, an expert at the Benesse Research Corporation, a leading private think-tank, explained that the new test would focus heavily on academic achievement. “They will have to study harder to get better scores to enter good universities,” he told University World News. However, he added, the continued focus on scores did not represent the major reform that is needed in Japan. “Japanese higher education has traditionally been rooted in developing academics who are top researchers rather than becoming innovators in the workplace. The much-heralded changes in Japanese universities continue to smack of this conservative trend,” he said. ////

“High school teachers have also expressed concerns, particularly over the idea of allowing multiple opportunities to take university entrance tests during high school. Ryoichi Oikawa, head of the National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals, said: “Being able to take the university exam during second or third grades [of high school, or ages 16-17] ultimately means students will be studying only for the test.” Crucial aspects of education, such as enjoying studying and promoting character development, would fall into second place. ////

“Some students still believe the high-stakes end-of-high school examination is the best way to enter the most reputable universities. High school third grader Nijie Ozaki (17) is studying hard to enter a university she feels will give her the best education to become an English tourist guide. “I was able to enter a university through the recommendation system but I refused. I am studying hard for the National Center Test to get high scores and get into the university I want to,” she told University World News. Her parents are supportive and have enrolled her in a cram school to raise her chances of success. ////

“Tsukasa Daizen, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, explained that students like Ozaki are not common in Japan, with the majority of high school students unclear about their career goals when they apply for universities. Against this backdrop, he said, students would focus entirely on passing a new achievement test and then have to take another test to gauge their thinking abilities, which was “a rather vague prospect”. He pointed to a lack of qualified admissions teams in Japanese institutions. “Most universities are short staffed and do not have the experience or qualifications to handle a new entrance test that involves the difficult task of judging thinking standards, for example,” he said. ////

Tokyo University and Kyoto University Plan Exams Reforms

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in the Education in Japan website, “After decades of intense public criticism of the rigidity and inflexibility of the higher education entrance exam system, Todai [Tokyo University] and Kyoto University, two universities at the top of the university ranking pyramid, have finally decided to redress these perceived weaknesses through their planned introduction of the recommendation-based entrance exam and admissions office exams. [Source:Aileen Kawagoe, Education in Japan website, April 16, 2013 *-*]

“The planned reform changes are also meant to address the criticisms that Japanese elite higher education, along with the rest of Japanese universities in the mid-to lower ranks, have been producing students, who may be adept at rote learning and passing academic entrance exams, but yet who lack academic proficiency, enthusiasm, motivation to learn or other broad skills necessary for future career or social success. *-*

“The overdue reforms, while they will be welcomed by many, are still rather modest … with Kyoto University proposals, out of admission quota of about 2,900 students, only 100 are selected, and the top 5 percent of students at each high school will be allowed to take special entrance exam which clearly continues to emphasize a reliance on academic testing scores (albeit those of the high school). *-*

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Both schools have screened applicants solely with scholastic ability tests. For students starting in the 2016 academic year, however, Todai will start a special exam for candidates recommended by high schools. Kyoto University plans to introduce an “admission-office entrance exam,” an interview- and essay-based test designed to evaluate students’ motivation and abilities. Each will admit about 100 students through the new system. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2013 =^=]

“Todai is the leading university in Japan, and one of the most prestigious in the world, but a dark cloud seems to be forming over us. The review on the entrance exam represents the sense of crisis Todai has today,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor emeritus at the university. University President Junichi Hamada touched on the “weakness” of the school. “I’d like to frankly point to the University’s weakness as an organization,” he said, citing delayed internationalization and the homogeneity of the student body and the low number of foreign students. =^=

The planned introduction of the recommendation-based entrance exam mainly aims at diversifying the student body, according to Hamada. Under the new system applicants require recommendations from their high schools, but Todai will not Homogeneity the schools from which they will accept recommendations, as many universities do. Instead, any school will be allowed to recommend up to two students. The system is aimed at accepting applicants not only from certain prestigious high schools, but also those from rural areas and even those students who may be seen as mavericks. The university said it wants to accept students with extraordinary talent in specific academic fields such as physics and history. =^=

Kyoto University calls its admission-office entrance exam “a characteristic exam.” In addition to evaluating applicants’ high school performance, Kyoto University requires them to take the national center test for university admissions and tests in individual faculties. Todai also plans to require candidates to take the national center test. Yukitoshi Sakaguchi, head of the entrance exam information center at cram school chain Yoyogi Seminar, said, “The universities are after top talent and want to secure those with high scholastic ability through the new recommendation-based exam and the admission-office exam.“ =^=

Entrance exam at University of Tokyo (based on recommendation for enrollment in academic year 2016 or later): 1) Out of admission quota of about 3,100 students, 100 are selected. 2) Each high school recommends one to two students. 3) Candidates submit academic records, reference letters and proof of extracurricular activities. 4) Admission begins in November. Candidates who pass document screening are interviewed in December. After National Center Test for University Admissions releases scores in January, successful candidates are confirmed. =^=

Special entrance exam at Kyoto University (based on enrollment in academic year 2016 or later): 1) Out of admission quota of about 2,900 students, 100 are selected. 2) Top 5 percent of students at each high school are allowed to take special entrance exam. 3) Candidates must submit academic records, extracurricular activity reports and plan of study after enrollment. 4) Candidates are comprehensively evaluated through document screening, National Center Test for University Admissions and interviews. Successful candidates are confirmed before secondary screening portion of general entrance exam. =^=

Current admissions at Harvard University: 1) About 2,000 students from around world are selected. 2) Candidates are comprehensively evaluated based on extracurricular activities, personal statements, essays, academic records and SAT scores. 3) Specialized university admissions staff screen application documents. Alumni around the world interview candidates. =^=

Why Are Top Japanese Universities Reforming Their Entrance Exam System

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “What prompted the two top universities to carry out entrance exam reforms? Shuji Hashimoto, vice president of Waseda University, said it is because the standard of excellence required for university graduates has changed over the years. Waseda University will discuss entrance exam reform from this academic year. With increased globalization, companies are eyeing universities critically. Shuji Narazaki, deputy chief of personnel at Nissan Motor Co. said: “A leader in business requires not only language skills, but also the ability to negotiate and work with people from various countries. Compared with young people in other countries, Japanese youth are lagging.” “An executive of a manufacturer doing business overseas said the excellence businesses seek is not fulfilled by the students of Japanese universities, saying, “They have high academic ability but lack independence and are weak-minded.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2013 =^=]

Though recommendation-based exams and admission office exams have taken root in national universities, except Todai, Kyoto University and the Tokyo University of the Arts, an increasing number of universities have started downsizing those exams. Okayama University cut the number of students to be accepted through admission-office exams this academic year. “Because students admitted through admission office exams didn’t do well, we wanted to accept students with basic academic skills through regular exams.”

“It became difficult to get the students we are looking for because high schools and cram schools started taking measures [to help students pass entrance exams],” one university official said. “We don’t see any real benefit though, and it requires additional screening,” another said. While the two top universities’ attempt to attract public attention, a Todai lecturer who graduated from another university expressed concern regarding the reform. “Many faculty members are Todai graduates who have passed the traditional entrance exam of the university. So, they are bound with the traditional view on academic ability. Todai may end up choosing the same kind of students they take through regular entrance exams.”

2010 Cheating Scandal: Using the Internet to Cheat on a Japanese University Entrance Exam

In March 2011, Japanese police arrested a 19-year-old on suspicion of cheating on entrance exams for Kyoto University and other universities by posting test questions online with his cellphone to get outside help. Since there are no specific laws against cheating the student was charged with fraudulently interfering with the Kyoto University’s operation using laws normally used in business fraud. If convicted, the student could face up to three years in prison or a fine of $6,000. The Japanese media said he could become the first person to be prosecuted in Japan for cheating. [Source: Associated Press, New York Times, March 4, 2011]

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “At first, the postings on a popular Web site... seemed innocuous enough: a user soliciting help for answers to a series of difficult math and English questions. But it later became clear that the questions were taken straight from an entrance exam to prestigious Kyoto University. And they were being posted---and being answered by other users---while the exam was still under way. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, March 1, 2011]

The episode has become a national scandal, the New York Times reported, raising questions about how to monitor the grueling exams, the main route to success in Japan, in an era of smartphones and instant Internet access. It also touched a nerve in a proudly egalitarian nation that has struggled to come to terms with its growing economic and social inequalities. Many here are wondering aloud whether admission to top universities---a ticket to a top corporate or government job---remains as merit-based as it used to be, or whether some young people are unfairly getting a leg up, in this case from misuse of new technologies. [Ibid]

“This is a heinous act that undermines the fairness that should be the basis of the university entrance system,” the Yomiuri Shimbun, warned in an editorial. Japan’s education minister, Yoshiaki Takaki, said that measures must be taken immediately to ensure the fairness of the exams.”This is unforgivable,” Mr. Takaki told reporters. [Ibid]

Japanese Teenager Who Cheated on University Entrance Exam

The teenager who cheated---a preparatory school students from Yamagata whose name has been withheld because he is a minor---said he alone used a cell phone to post the questions on the Internet and he “just wanted to pass” the exams.

The teenager told police he cheated because he did not want to burden his mother with education expenses, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. "As [my family] is badly off, I didn't want my mother to stress [about money]. I therefore wanted to pass the Kyoto University exams [because of the university's low tuition fees] by any means possible," he was quoted as saying. "I planned to cheat before I took the exam, and repeatedly practiced posting [questions] on the bulletin board. I knew it was wrong," he was quoted as saying. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun March 6, 2011]

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun the student's father died in the autumn of 2009 during the youth's third year at a Yamagata prefectural high school. He failed to pass the university entrance examinations he took during his last year of high school. In the spring of 2010, he left his parental home in Yamagata Prefecture, where he lived with his mother who works in a job related to nursing care, and entered the Sendai campus of the major test-preparation school Kawaijuku Educational Institution. As far as his friends and those related to his high school were concerned, the teenager was thought to have excellent academic abilities, sources said.

However, he failed to get good marks at two-day unified college entrance examinations, known as the National Center Test for University Admissions, held on in January 2010. "[In order to get into Kyoto University,] he had to do extremely well on the [university's] examination. He seemed anxious," a Kawaijuku official said.

The student, who received a monthly stipend of 50,000 yen from his mother, told police, "I was stressed out as I lost my father and had to spend one year preparing for university entrance examinations after leaving high school. I saw a doctor at a clinic near my home about once a month.” In the afternoon of the second day of the National Center Test, he posted a comment on the online bulletin board, suggesting he was thinking of committing suicide.

How the Internet Cheating Worked

The student used a single online handle, “aicezuki,” to cheat on the exams used at Kyoto University and three other top universities. He students used his cellphone either to type out exam questions or take photos of them and post them on the site. The questions were posted on a site run by Yahoo Japan called Chiebukuro, or “Pearls of Wisdom,” on which users can ask each other for answers to questions. Yahoo Japan, which is a separate company from the American Internet portal, said it would cooperate with the authorities.

In the case of the Kyoto University test the student posted all the questions from the mathematics exam and some from the English test in Kyoto University's second-stage two-day examinations from his seat in the exam room. Users on the Yahoo site posted answers to some of the questions within minutes, in time to be used for the exam. The universities said it was unclear if those who gave answers knew the questions came from an entrance exam.

The student told police that he hid a cell phone under his desk and operated it with his left hand during the tests. During the Kyoto University math exam, he posted all seven questions on the Internet over six occasions. The first question appeared seven minutes after the test began, with the others coming at intervals of five to 11 minutes. It took the student 40 minutes to post all seven. According to the police, he probably registered mathematical signs in his cell phone's dictionary in advance, as he was able to quickly post the questions with such signs soon after the test started. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 5, 2011]

The questions contained diagrams and simultaneous inequalities and used many mathematical signs, including square root, greater-than, logarithms and absolute values. Although these signs are rarely used in daily life, the youth was able to post them correctly on the bulletin board. Six of the seven math questions were answered on the bulletin board during the two-hour test time. The last question remained unsolved near the end of the period, and the student posted messages urging people to answer, the sources said.

In English exams for Kyoto, Waseda, Doshisha and Rikkyo universities, the student posted only the last questions on the Internet. Many of them were posted a relatively short time after the tests began. A Tokyo prep school teacher said, "Since the four universities were located considerably far apart, the number of applicants able to sit for their entrance exams must be limited, so it may not be hard to identify the poster if the universities compare notes."

Aicezuki Internet Posts

A total of 27 posts were been made by the account name "aicezuki," including those regarding exam questions, since Dec. 22. Three of the posts have been deleted. One post described the meaning of "aicezuki," saying if you read it in reverse, it says, "ikuze CIA" (“Let's go! Central Intelligence Agency). [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 28, 2011]

"Aicezuki" frequently posted questions about math and English exams. Posts this month were about questions in English exams at Doshisha University on Feb. 8 and Rikkyo University on Feb. 11. There also was a post from Feb. 12 regarding a question where the examinee was asked to translate into English a piece of Japanese text about the differences between manga and novels. [Ibid]

In a post regarding questions in Kyoto University's math exam, "aicezuki" apparently copied the questions and wrote: "I have no clue. I'm crying." The post asked for a formula that would help find the solution to the question. But "aicezuki" seems to have tried to hide where the problem was from, saying it came from a cram school exam. One respondent apparently realized the question was from a university entrance exam and wrote, "P.S. I'm going to do everything I can to identify you." [Ibid]

Answers to Aicezuki Internet Posts

The accuracy of "answers" to the posts on the Chiebukuro site were described as "a mixture of wheat and chaff," ranging from perfectly correct to substandard, according to preparatory schools. Kenshinkan-Nishinomiya Preparatory School in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, said of the answers given the exam was being conducted only one of the seven answers offered could be called excellent, two were fairly good, three were partially correct and one was totally wrong. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 2, 2011]

The poster, depending on how he used the responses sent back, had a chance of obtaining a score as high as 119 out of the full score of 150 on the math exam, placing the poster well within the segment of successful applicants, the prep school said. [Ibid]

Two of the English questions asked examinees to translate Japanese sentences into English were posted on the Chiebukuro site under the same "aicezuki" name. One of the responses that the poster thanked for being the "best" online reply during the exam session was an erroneous translation that "could never be said to have been written by a person well versed in English," a prep school tutor said. Another answer was also subpar, and might have been worth half a score for the question at best, he said. [Ibid]

Only one Japanese-to-English translation question was posted from the examination of Doshisha University's Faculty of Letters. An analysis of the "best" response by Tennoji Preparatory School in Osaka showed that it would presumably score about eight points if the full score for the question were 10. Three questions with relatively high point values from Rikkyo University's English examination were found to be posted online. [Ibid]

All three were questions requiring written answers, but the poster failed to copy some of them accurately onto a mobile phone. "Although responses to the erroneously copied questions were correct as they were, they were wrong as answers to the actual questions," one prep school tutor said. One of the questions leaked while the English exams were in progress at Waseda University was one asking the examinees to summarize six English passages into a single English sentence. The posting on the Net, however, called for help in solving the question in an off-the-mark way, by incorrectly putting the questions into Japanese first before asking the question-and-answer online site to translate that Japanese back into English, thus failing to gain any score, the tutor said. [Ibid]

"It never occurred to me for a second that it was an entrance exam question," one person said in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, expressing embarrassment that the Chiebukuro online bulletin board been used for cheating. A 51-year-old company employee in Tokyo told The Yomiuri Shimbun he was surprised when he watched a TV news report about the case. "I got quite a shock when they showed a question that I remembered seeing," he said. He posted an answer he believed correct to one of the questions on the bulletin board, but later found out it was one of the entrance exam questions. [Ibid]

The question was posted during the English section of Doshisha University's entrance exam. The message said, "Please translate the following passage into English. Thank you very much." The man said: "I just happened to see the question. It never occurred to me it was an entrance exam question." The man said he has used the Yahoo Chiebukuro service for about a year, and visits the site four or five times a day. As he has worked overseas and is confident of his English ability, he often posts answers to questions about English. When he needs information about PCs, he sometimes posts messages seeking answers to his own questions. [Ibid]

Cell Phone Cheating Methods and Trying to Prevent It

"I hate to say this, but if anyone skillfully uses a mobile phone while we are looking aside, they will not be caught," Mitsuo Yoshizawa, a professor at J.F. Oberlin University told the Yomiuri Shimbun. For years, he has been assigned to keep watch on test-takers at examination venues.

Some examinees sit hunched over their desks, as if closely poring over their answer sheets. This can make it difficult for inspectors to know what they are doing with their hands. Some examinees wear overcoats during the test because they have a cold or other illness. Phone cheating by coat-clad examinees may go unnoticed if they keep their hands tucked into their pockets to secretly use mobile phones concealed there. They may tap on their devices' keyboards without looking at them. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 1, 2011]

The poster in question may have entered a restroom to stealthily use a mobile phone to send questions to the Web site, according to specialists. Most colleges and universities, including Kyoto University, require any test-taker to be accompanied by an inspector if he or she uses a restroom during the test time. However, one examinee said, "It may be possible to use a cell phone [without getting caught by the inspector]. All you have to do is flush the toilet...Doing so will cover up any sounds made by using the phone." [Ibid]

A similar trick also could be played by switching a camera cell phone to quiet mode. Doing so would make it possible to secretly photograph a question paper and send the photo to someone else, who could then post questions from the test paper on a Web site. In fact, the increase in students using cell phones to cheat on periodical exams is already troubling high school teachers and administrators. "I've spotted some students who may have been cheating on tests," a 31-year-old high school teacher from the Kanto-Koshinetsu region said. [Ibid]

In some cases, he said, students stealthily tapped on their cell phone keyboards, with the phones tucked into pockets or hidden between their wrists and shirts. One of his colleagues has caught a student using a mobile phone to cheat during the test hour. It was found that the student had concealed the cell phone somewhere in a school restroom before the start of the test. [Ibid]

Trying to Prevent Cell Phone Cheating

Kyoto University deployed about 400 supervisors to monitor about 8,000 examinees, saying that was sufficient to oversee the test. However, according to a former professor of a state-run university in his 60s, "Simply having many supervisors in the exam room won't solve the problem. Many university staffers describe supervising entrance examinations as a 'mindless chore' and do it half-heartedly." Two or more professors are allocated to supervise venues where the National Center Test for University Admissions is held. But the former professor said some supervisors grade exams from their own classes while others snore through the tests. The former professor also heard complaints from students who said supervisors chatted noisily. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 5, 2011]

A former Waseda University official said it is difficult for supervisors to single out exam takers even if they notice what appears to be wrongdoing. The Tokyo-based university established a rule that two or more supervisors need to confirm the suspicious activity before they can warn suspected cheaters. [Ibid]

Mike Guest, an associate professor of English at Miyazaki University, wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Having invigilated tests myself on numerous occasions, I must admit that I find it stunning that the perpetrator pulled off his cell phone stunt not just once, but at four different test venues. I had thought that proctoring naturally required a constant monitoring by walking about the room while being as surreptitious as possible so as not to disturb the examinees---in short, being vigilant! I had not imagined that a student holding an item under the table or regularly looking away from the test paper would go unnoticed, but I have heard since that in some settings proctors fall asleep or concentrate on other work. Still, the sneak in the Kyoto University must have been either exceedingly lucky to have had inattentive proctors four times or have magician-like stealth in his manner.” [Ibid]

Rules About Having Cell Phones at Exams

Embarrassed by the scandal, the Japanese Education Ministry said it might ban cellphones and other communications devices at exam sites. Ministry officials said that things stood at the time of scandal regulations on what examinees can bring into exam rooms were set by each university, except for the National Center Test for University Admissions. Some universities allow examinees to bring dictionaries to exams. "Rules over what can be brought into exam rooms are dealt with just according to common sense," said a senior official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 28, 2011]

Kobe University asked examinees to turn off cell phones and place them in a designated area, meaning students were not allowed to have cell phones near them during the exam. But some observers said it could be difficult to completely prevent examinees from bringing cell phones into test rooms during large exams. [Ibid]

The guidelines for the National Center Test stipulate examinees must turn off cell phones, and any other devices that make noise, and put them in their bags before they enter exam rooms. Examinees who use cell phones to contact people during tests could be accused of cheating. If a person is found to have cheated, he or she is banned from finishing the present exam or taking exams in future years, and the results of exams already taken become invalid. [Ibid]

After the incident came to light some universities began keeping test-takers' cell phones during the test or having examinees turn off their phones and place them in clear view on their desks. Some universities even held their exams in smaller venues than originally planned so examinees can be more easily watched. Some are even considering screening students with metal detectors and fitting test rooms with devices that jams mobile communications and prevents the use of cell phones. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 4, 2011]

In South Korea, a large group of students used cell phones in an organized attempt to cheat on a university entrance exam in 2004. Since then, test takers in South Korea have been obliged to leave all electronic devices, including DVD players, digital camera and cell phones, in a separate room during exam hours. If examinees are found to have such devices during a test, they are forced to leave the room and in serious cases are even questioned by police. During the scandal in Japan , Japan’s national NHK broadcaster has repeatedly shown footage of Korean students passing through metal detectors before taking exams. [Ibid] [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~; Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2013

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