In April 2003, 97.3 percent of middle school graduates continued on to high schools, including correspondence high schools (Monbukagakusho- 2004a). Students select one public high school from the school district and take its entrance examination, in addition to the entrance examinations for as many private schools as they want. All high schools in a school district are ranked, according to their success in sending graduates to prestigious colleges, and matched to the standard deviation of the test scores of prospective students. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

There are three kinds of regular daily high schools: academic, vocational, and comprehensive, in addition to evening high schools and correspondence high schools. Academic high schools are usually ranked higher than technical, commercial, and agricultural schools because the majority of middle school graduates plan to earn a degree from a university, a junior college or a specialized training college. Vocational high schools are also ranked through their success in placing their graduates in jobs. Among the vocational school students, male students tend to choose technical high schools, while female students tend to attend commercial high schools and the departments of nursing and home economics in vocational or academic schools. ~

Each student can take only one entrance examination for public high school since the examination day is the same. They can take as many private high school examinations as they want. There are two kinds of private high schools: elite and low-ranked. Unless they have extremely bad behavioral problems, all students can pass the exams for low-ranked private schools, so that everybody who wants to attend high school can do so even after they have failed the exams for public high school. ~

The high school entrance examination is the first obstacle that almost all ninth graders, except for students in elite private six-year schools, encounter. Middle school students decide which high school to attend, based on their school grades and test scores. Going to a high-ranked high school gives students a better chance to enter a high-ranked college, and to land a high status job, because employers use educational credentials as one of the main criteria for recruitment. Takeuchi argues that the high school examination used for screening students is based on “tournament mobility theory,” and that “early winners” get better chances for the next stage in selection, the college entrance examination (Takeuchi 1995).

Examination Hell

“Examination hell” places enormous stress on 15-year-old ninth graders. According to the 1995 survey, over two-thirds of parents of children from fourth to ninth grades described the entrance examination as stressful for their children and for themselves (So-mucho- 1996:163). In order to solve this problem, several proposals have been made: 1) diverse criteria for admission; 2) six-year secondary schools; 3) comprehensive community high schools; and 4) the return-match system (e.g., transfer system and a quota system to colleges).
[Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Defenders of the examination contend that the competition is a good motivation for study. According to a 1987 survey, almost 90 percent of teachers and two-thirds of middle school students think that competition is a good reason for study, and 60 percent of both teachers and students think that the competition is necessary (Kudomi 1994b:329).

Admission to High School in Japan

The admission selections are based on academic merit including the entrance examination scores, grades, and interviews. The overemphasis on academic test scores undermines the whole-person education of middle school. The MOE, objecting to the fierce competition during the entrance examinations, suggested in 1997 that high school admissions should use a greater variety of criteria: 1) student motivation; 2) sports and cultural club activities; 3) volunteer service; 4) reports from community leaders; 5) school recommendation; 6) interviews; and 7) essays, composition, and practical skills (So-mucho- 1998:320).
[Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

However, the evaluation of these criteria can be too subjective. Also, students would still compete to get better evaluations from extracurricular activities and volunteer service. Although extracurricular activities help students develop their physical and artistic abilities and improve their interpersonal skills, and volunteer activities help students gain social experiences in the community, their participation in these activities should not be forced. As long as educational credentials affect the future careers of the students, competition to enter high-ranked high schools and then high-ranked colleges will persist. ~

During placement counseling with students and parents, homeroom teachers of ninth graders take the most significant role in matching each student to a high school. Homeroom teachers know the student’s interests as well as parents’ preference, and present the odds of passing the exams based on the analysis of his/her test scores from midterms, final exams, and practice exams. Teachers compare the student’s performance to that of previous students, during a parent-teacher-student conference at the end of the first trimester. They sort out students according to their academic rank, and suggest to them the high schools where they have the best chance of passing the entrance exams. Students who reluctantly agree to take exams from their second or third choice of high school are discouraged. At the same time, they can clearly see the probability of passing based on their academic position, and understand which high school they have the best chance of entering. The problem with this system is that the students are sorted only by academic achievement, such as the standard deviation of mock test scores, and not by their future life plan. ~

Tentative Schedule: Any time from the second year of jr. high through the summer of the third year: Participate in: 1) takienjyugyo (jr. high students can try out a class at the prospective school. Counts for extra points if you actually take the entrance exam); 2) setsumeikai (a meeting to explain something. The jr. high will have these to explain high school entrance procedures, and the high schools will have these to talk about what they offer and their entrance procedures); 3) kobetsusodan (a personal consultation with high school representatives who will coach your child on the best way to pass the entrance exam to their school. Tips might include how to dress, which grades to pull up, attitude. Very informal. You may want to have a copy of your child's latest report card with you) . Also Visit undokai (sports festival) or bunkasai (cultural festival) to get an idea of what the student body is like.

A) October, November (of your child's third year): Try to narrow your choices to 3 - 4 schools; decisions made on sports (special) suisen; B) December: Final grades for 2nd semester - G.P.A. determines which schools you can attempt. Deadline for papers to be filled out by the school C) January: Students take ganshou ( entrance exam application) on particular day to particular schools. Tangan suisen tests (an exam for your child's first choice school) for shiritsu. Tangan suisen tests for koritsu. D) February: Regular entrance exams for shiritsu; Heigan suisen (recommended entrance in which the school will hold an opening for your child while he/she tries for a higher level or public school entrance) for shiritsu. Regular entrance exams for kouritsu. E) March: Results for kouritsu regular entrance exams [Source: Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi,, 2005]

Important terms: 1) hensachi - a mysterious number purportedly to have great meaning that we have worked around but still don't quite get. A hensachi basically tells you the level of the students in the high school. The maximum is 80 and the minimum is 20. 2) ippan nyushi - regular entrance. 3) jikou P.R. card - a card filled out by your child that tells about all the things your child has done while in junior high in and out of school. 4) juken - the process of taking entrance exams. 5) jukensei - a student who will take entrance exams this scholastic year. 6) naishinsho - confidential report prepared by your child's school and sent directly to the school you’ve applying to. 7) nijishiken - a second sitting for a school's entrance exam, usually only offered at lower ranked high schools. 8) nyushi - (nyuugakushiken) - entrance exam (the exam itself). 9) ronin - students are determined to get into a certain school and take a year (sometimes more) to study for that school's entrance exams. 10) sanjishiken - a third sitting for a school's entrance exam, only offered at lower ranked high schools. 11) sankyouka - three subject test (math, Japanese, English). 12) sansha mendan - Parent, teacher, student conference. 13) seiseki - grades. 13) STEP exam (also know as shiken - an exam that ranks your child's level of English comprehension in reading, listening, speaking and writing (at pre-1 and 1 levels). You must choose which level to take. 14) suberidome - a lower level school that is a sure thing.

Shiritsu (Private High Schools) vs Koritsu (Private High Schools)

There are two main types of high school for those planning to go to university: public (koritsu or public funded) and private (shiritsu). Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi wrote in the education-in-japan website: “Public high schools are pretty straightforward. They are basically an extension of the three years of public junior high, but they are ranked and, in some cases, have specialties. The biggest difference between public and private schools can probably be felt in the pocketbook. They tend to be about one-tenth the price of the private schools. [Source: Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi,, 2005]

“Private high schools (shiritsu) usually have their exams about two weeks earlier than private high schools. They are not all on the same day. Usually you have two days to choose from for the exam . The differences grow from there. There is the price tag, which you were already warned about. You should also take into consideration that most, though not all private high schools are actually junior & high schools combined in a six-year program. This means that there are often few places open for new students, and that the students your child joins may have been working on a slightly different curriculum from your child. Typically, some subjects are accelerated and some downplayed which subjects depend on the school. When your child takes the entrance exam for a private school he will be tested on knowledge he would have if he had gone through that school's junior high program.

“In Japan the student's high school will follow him forever on his resume and job applications. Having only one school as your goal can lead to disaster. If your child is aiming for a top-level school and only that school will do, if he doesn't make it in, there is disappointment all around that is difficult to move beyond. In the end remember that there are good and bad points to every school. There is no transferring to another high school. If you change schools you start all over again from the 1st year. It's not done often since it is so costly, but on the other hand, it is not that unusual, either. There are very few high school ronin (students that delay high school entrance). Though we often hear of college ronin, few students wait a year to get into their first choice high school. Most make do with what they get into, or change after the first year.

“Private high schools tend to have more exam days. The first exam will be about February 10. This is the exam your child must take if this is his first choice school. If spaces are not filled (i.e., students who got in opt not to go there) a second exam will be given. Lower ranking schools have three or four exam days hoping to pick up students who aimed a little to high. My Japanese neighbors warned that I should put my boys into a private combination jr. high/high school because they will study for parents at the end of elementary school but not at the end of jr. high.

Gaijin's View on What to Look for in a Japanese High School

Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi wrote in the education-in-japan website: “Whether you are going for public or private, there are certain things you want to consider in order to pick out the best school for your child. Do you want specialized classes? Graded levels of English, foreign languages or emphasis on science and math? Check the curriculum of the schools carefully. Does your child have a love of a particular sport or a desire to join a certain club? Some schools are famous for their prowess in extra-curricular activities and that can be a huge draw for you child. Your child will probably know more than you about this so you can follow their lead. Keep in mind that sports suisen is an option. (See Entry Methodsfor more information.) [Source: Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi,, 2005]

“Another big factor is location. How early will your child wake up? How long do you want them on the train every day? Is going through busy stations like Shibuya a factor? How difficult is it to get there? Will there be several train changes? Is it a nice neighborhood to walk through with a pleasant atmosphere? Talk to your child about what he/she can reasonably handle. Keep in mind that you may think it is horrible to go to the school twice a year for PTA meetings but your child will happily go and come back, sometimes twice a day!

“The facilities available may be another concern. Are there enough playing fields, pools, air-conditioned rooms? Dress codes, uniforms, strict or relaxed rules, whether it is a coed or an all-boys or all-girls school may also be deciding factors. What about study abroad programs? There is a wide range of programs, running from a week to an entire year. Some of these programs allow your child to attend a year abroad, come back to Japan and still be able to finish high school in 3 years . There may be some stipulations, however. Some schools will only allow your child to participate if you have attended the jr. high. Or they may want a commitment as early as the October of the 3rd year of jr. high, before your child has a chance to test the waters of regular entrance exams.

“Finally, do you want a university-attached high school (daigaku fuzoku kouko). If your child is planning to go to college in Japan, this may be the route to go. This type of high school gives your child an easy entrance into college and he won't have to go through this anguish all over again three years down the line. Entrance into these schools tends, therefore, to be more competitive, especially so if there is also an attached jr. high. On the other hand, some parents stay away from these schools on purpose either because they are planning to send their children to college outside Japan, or because they are afraid their child will waste 3 years knowing that they will be able to enter college as long as they have fairly decent grades.

Once you're determined what is important it will be much easier to whittle down the seemingly endless list of possibilities. If you are still in doubt and running out of time, however, there are two suggestions. The first is to send your child to a juku or cram school. These schools can tutor your child in the extra information he/she (for the sake of brevity, all children will be referred to as he from here on out) will need to pass private high school exams or to hone regular academic skills to bring up their junior high grades. Juku are also are revered as having more information about high schools (even connections, in some cases) and knowing how to interpret that information better than the local junior highs. They may be able to recommend the perfect school for your child.

Getting Into a Japanese High School and High School Entrance Exams

Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi wrote in the education-in-japan website: “There are basically two ways to get into a Japanese high school: 1) Regular entrance exams (r.e.e.), or 2) Suisen or recommended entrance. Regular entrance exam for private schools, for the most part, test students on three subjects: English, math and Japanese. Therefore these are called sankyoka, or 3-subject, exams. For most of the public schools the exams cover five subjects (gokyoka): English, math, Japanese, science and social studies. [Source: Rebecca Ikawa and Sandra Tanahashi,, 2005 ]

“There are three types of recommended entrances: tangan suisen, heigan suisen, and supootsu (sports) suisen. A tangan suisen (often abbreviated to just suisen) is an exam for your child's first choice school. Though it is possible to do this for two schools, one private and one public. The private exam will come first, then the suisen exams for public schools.

“To apply for a (tangan) suisen your child will first need to receive a certain number of points on his third year, second semester report card a very important report card. Each school sets the minimum number of points required for students to have in order to apply for their suisen. Waseda and Keio high schools, for example, require students have 38 points before they can apply for the suisen entrance. If your child gets all 5s, then for the nine subjects, they will have a total of 45 points and could apply to any high schools that have suisen.

“Second, your child needs his teacher and the school to recommend them. If your child has the grades, they probably also have the school's support, but these things do not necessarily go hand in hand. You will need to discuss the possibility of a suisen with your child's teacher during one of the sanshamendan or student-parent-teacher interviews. They will contact the school for you to apply for suisen and have teachers and the principal fill out the necessary papers.

“Even when your child gets both the grades and the recommendation, the teacher will still probably ask you if you really want to do this. The chances of your child getting in through suisen are small. (Of the 20-plus kids who tried from my son's school in the class of 2002, not one was accepted.) Your child is putting everything on the line, his academic ability is tested and his personality and talents are examined through interviews. If he doesn't get in it is a shock, and it takes great mental maturity to pick up the pieces and get back into studying for regular exams. Personally, as long as your child knows it is a long shot, I think it's worth the try. Your child will secure a place at least two or three weeks ahead of students taking the recommended entrance exam. (A very long period in the life of a jukensei and their parents!). Another plus, these suisen exams are not as long as the regular ones. Often the interview and the PR card are the most important points.

“If your child applies to a school through suisen, you essentially are making a verbal contract with both their school of choice and your child's junior high. By applying for this type of entrance you are saying that if your child gets in, he will go there. You are asking the junior high teachers to write recommendations affirming that this is his first choice and that he's a great student the high school will be happy to have him. Declining a suisen would not only give your child's junior high a bad reputation, but the high school will probably not accept any suisen students from your child's school for the next several years. If your child is accepted, they must go to the school. If your child is not accepted and they still want to go there, they can try to get in again through the regular entrance exam a couple of weeks later.

“Heigan suisen a gift from the god of high schools! A heigan suisen is recommended entrance in which the school will hold an opening for your child while he/she tries for a higher level or public school entrance Every child, if possible, should have a heigan suisen school. This will act as your child's safety-net. Only available at private schools that are at a level well within your child's capabilities, the heigan suisen is like a regular entrance exam, except that you can postpone paying any entrance fees until after public school entrance exam results have been posted (about the beginning of March). These suisen allow your child to have a secured place while they try for a higher-level school, private and/or public. Like the tangan suisen, this too is arranged through your child's homeroom teacher who will contact the school to get your child personally accepted. Once accepted, your child is basically guaranteed a place as schools that offer this program see the heigan students as higher level of students than the majority of students they expect to apply.

“Sports suisen (or a specialty suisen) is the third type of suisen. Children who are outstanding athletes (or have some other original talent or desire) are scouted by high schools. If your child has a unique point and wants to go to a particular school, talk to that school and/or your child's homeroom teacher about a sports (or other) suisen.

“What help can you expect from your child's teacher and the school? Well, probably not as much as you would like, and more than they want to give. I think that being a homeroom teacher of 3rd year junior high students is a miserable, thankless job. The homeroom teacher is responsible for helping every child find a high school by acting as a sounding board, filling out numerous forms (the more schools you apply to the more forms) and acting as a go-between between your child and the high schools. However, every year the rules for applying to high schools change and usually one teacher from each junior high is responsible for attending a myriad of meetings to find out about the new rules and then to pass them on to other teachers, students and finally, to you, the parents.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~; Education in Japan website ; Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), Daily Yomiuri, Jiji Press, 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.

Last updated Japan 2014

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