Toddlers cram for a start on Japan's fast track Academic competition begins early in Darwinian system of education

February 16, 1997|By LOS ANGLES TIMES

TOKYO -- Twice a week, Ko goes to cram school to prepare for the crucial entrance exam he will have to take next year.

He arrives for class with a tiny knapsack packed with his crayons, lunch box and a diaper. He is, after all, only 2 years old.

Japan's super-competitive system of "examination hell" is engulfing ever-younger children, spawning a new industry of cram schools to help the baby boomers' babies pass entrance exams for elite private kindergartens and elementary schools.

About 150 cram schools in Tokyo now cater to preschoolers, who are drilled in the test-taking strategies they need to beat the 10-to-1 odds for a slot on the kiddie fast track.

Among the lessons:

Know your colors, shapes and nursery rhymes.

Don't cry or whine.

Sit with your hands politely resting on your thighs.

And never take more than one cookie when offered the cookie jar.

Coaching for mothers

The cram schools also coach the babies' mothers in how to ace the equally vital parental interview.

Among the tips: Wear a conservative, navy blue suit, a white blouse, low heels and no flashy jewelry. A Chanel handbag is OK at "liberal" kindergartens such as the famous Aoyama Gakuin, but a quiet, nondesigner black bag is de rigueur at venerable institutions such as Denenchofu Futaba, whose alumni include Crown Princess Masako, wife of the future Japanese emperor.

Working mothers are frowned upon, and their children are less likely to be accepted by elite schools.

Even stay-at-home mothers are told to come across as homey during the interview by mentioning how much they enjoy baking special treats for their child.

"It's very difficult, but because of the way Japan is now, it cannot be helped," said Toshiko Hayashi, whose daughter Risa was rejected by the kindergarten of her choice and will have to try again next fall.

Risa has been attending one of Tokyo's better cram schools since age 18 months.

Tuition is $730 a month for two mornings a week.

How long will she keep attending?

"Until she passes," her mother said firmly.

Phenomenon is spreading

Like most Japanese trends, the baby cram schools originated in Tokyo but have spread to Osaka and smaller cities. A Tokai Bank survey conducted last year in Tokyo and Nagoya found that 26 percent of preschoolers were either attending cram schools or following correspondence courses at home.

Their families paid an average of $124 per month.

Parents who attended cram schools to help get into good high schools or colleges are enrolling their toddlers despite warnings from educators that intensive tutoring is unnecessary and possibly harmful for them.

Some of the elite kindergartens and elementary schools also protest the advent of baby cram schools even while admitting their young alumni.

Parents call the cram schools a "necessary evil" in Japan's "education society," where graduates of a handful of elite universities have for decades been seen as monopolizing the nation's best jobs, highest salaries and deepest respect.

The rigid system has loosened, with prominent educators arguing that a degree from Tokyo University, known as "Todai," will not guarantee success in the 21st century.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has targeted education as one of six areas urgently in need of structural reform.

But even Education Ministry officials think change will be slow in coming, and millions of anxious parents remain convinced that a degree from Todai is the best possible ticket to a bright future for their children.

Though dreadfully Darwinian, Japan's educational system has long been praised as a true meritocracy. Poor boys from the provinces could rise above the sons of tycoons if only they could pass the Todai entrance exam.

But now critics say the proliferation of cram schools is making it much more difficult for the children of lower-income families to break into the educational elite.

Not so egalitarian

"Japan appears to be one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, but it is not," said Todai education professor Toshiyuki Shiomi.

According to a study by Keio University professor Yoshio Higuchi, only 26 percent of students entering Todai in 1975 were graduates of private high schools. But by 1992, 52 percent came from private schools.

The wealthier the parents, the more likely they are to invest in cram schools that help their children win admission to these pricey private schools that in turn make it easier to get into the best universities.

Parental hopes

"Parental income has a huge effect on a child's education, and through the employment system, it has a huge effect on the child's lifelong income," Higuchi said.

Mothers of the cram-school children said they are anxious to get their offspring into private schools not least because they believe that bullying, the bane of the Japanese public school system, will not be tolerated.

Moreover, by getting their children into the elite private kindergartens and elementary schools that are linked to prestigious universities, the mothers hope to spare their offspring the worst of examination hell.

For example, Miki Shimamura attended the Keio schools, whose university is the Japanese equivalent of Yale.

After the Keio Yochisa elementary school, Shimamura zipped through the Keio high school and was accepted at Keio University without having to take its notoriously tough entrance exam.

A smooth passage

All that was required of him was to keep up his grades, and 90 percent of his elementary school classmates made it.

Now Shimamura has taken over his father's business, heading Keishinkai, an exclusive prep school for the 2- to 6-year-old set. Many of the Keishinkai parents have their hearts set on Keio.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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