Overhauling Japan's High-Stakes University-Admission System

The Ministry of Education is on a mission to save the country's economy—and the effort could be a boon for kids’ mental health, too.

Students walk with umbrellas in the snow.
Students make their way in the snow as they head to National Center Test for University Admissions in Nagoya, Aichi prefecture, Japan, on January 14, 2017. (Kyodo via Reuters)

This weekend, more than 580,000 Japanese high-school seniors will take the country’s standardized university-entrance exam, known as the National Center Test for University Admissions. This test, commonly referred to simply as the “Center Test,” is the culmination of years of intense preparation that begins as early as kindergarten. Mothers pray in special Shinto shrines for their children’s success, and students buy daruma dolls, meant to keep evil spirits and demons away, to bring themselves good luck.

They need it. The stakes of the Center Test are so high that late winter in Japan is widely known as “examination hell.” Doing well on the test is key to gaining admission to a top-tier college, and attending such a college is key to securing one’s future. The education at these prestigious institutions is generally understood to be easy once a student enrolls, and when she graduates four years later she’ll have a very good chance of finding a well-paid job with a top-ranked corporation or government ministry.

“Anybody can get into a university in Japan at the moment,” said Greg Poole, a social-anthropology professor at the Institute for the Liberal Arts of Doshisha University in Kyoto. But in a highly stratified country like Japan, only the country’s top-tier public and private universities can guarantee young adults promising prospects.

In turn, students with means who don’t get into a coveted top university will often wait a year to retake the test and try to land a spot at their preferred choice. During the interim, these young adults, known as ronin, will likely study at a cram school. In pre-modern Japanese history, the term ronin referred to master-less samurai who, absent a teacher, lost their social status and were barred from many traditional forms of employment. The analogy between the modern-day use of the term and its meaning in ancient times is significant: In Japan, the social stigma associated with failing the Center Test is acute, and as a result ronin—often at their parents’ expense—subject themselves to the often-grueling conditions of cram school for a year (or, sometimes, several years) to gain access to their top-choice school.

The psychological impact of falling behind in the highly structured Japanese tertiary system can be devastating. In a 2014 analysis, Japanese neuropsychiatrists found that roughly 58 percent of the ronin they surveyed had depression, and that just under 20 percent had severe depression. The scholars made clear the link between stressful schooling and poor mental health among the students cramming to retake their Center Test. According to the study, the ronin have to cope with a loss of identity; a sense of failure related to the testing; and “anxiety, irritation, and impatience” over the prospect of taking the next exam.

Testing culture is particularly stringent across East Asia, and in many ways it seems to pay off. The region has some of the highest-performing students among developed countries: Students from South Korea, Shanghai, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong routinely perform better than their American counterparts on international academic assessments, in part because of the high expectations set for them by their countries’ testing cultures.

But the obsession over kids’ academic achievements risks jeopardizing the human element at the core of it all: the student herself. In Japan, where Center Test success can feel to those taking it like a marker of their worth in society, and like the end-all of their academic and professional careers, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is planning an ambitious reform that seeks to transform the assessment’s role in the university-admission system, and rethink the way aptitude is measured and students are trained for their professional lives.

Japan isn’t the only country actively seeking to reform its approach to education—nor is it the only nation where standardized exams are a key sticking point in debates about what is wrong and right about a given approach. In the United States, when the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was created in 1926 as an adaptation of the World War I Army I.Q. assessment, it was promoted as a meritocratic, well-rounded tool to measure innate intelligence. Over time, it became clear that the test was neither holistic nor meritocratic, instead creating a system whereby students who can afford SAT prep and private tutors are rewarded over those who can’t. Increasing numbers of colleges and universities have developed SAT-optional policies or begun placing more emphasis on other factors in admission decisions, and even more have begun accepting scores for the ACT—which bills itself as being more closely tied to high-school curriculum and advertises a stronger focus on science—instead. The SAT was in 2016 overhauled with the aim of fostering more critical thinking and moving past the intense anxiety it caused among students taking it to get into college. These changes, in theory, addressed criticisms that mirror those underpinning Japan’s current test-overhaul effort.

The world should pay attention to Japan’s initiative: The country is a noteworthy case study for thinking about the shortcomings of a theoretically meritocratic system in which rote memorization is prized above critical-thinking skills and resilience, oftentimes taking a severe toll on students’ mental health.

As the 2014 analysis of ronin demonstrates, the human cost of East Asia’s testing culture is high. A similar study published in 2000 identified higher rates of clinical depression among South Korean teenagers compared to their American counterparts, finding a direct correlation between the former’s poor mental health and the stress of their university-admissions system. And in China, where stress attributed to the schooling system begins at a very young age, researchers in 2010 showed that the country’s “competitive and punitive educational environment” leads to “high levels of stress and psychosomatic symptoms,” such as regular headaches and abdominal pain, in Chinese primary schoolchildren.

The customs and structure of Japan’s postsecondary system perpetuate a similar crisis there. The country has a large university system, made up of mostly private, and some public, universities. Many establishments require students to take the Center Test for admission on top of their individual examinations (which can cost students tens of thousands of yen, or hundreds of dollars, to take). Unlike in the U.S., where schools consider other factors such as GPAs and extracurriculars in making admissions decisions, the most common pathway into Japanese postsecondary institutions typically goes through the tests. Each school, and each department within the school, has its own scale for admission, which can change with each passing year. The country’s top school, Tokyo University, weighs admission on a scale of 550 points, made up of a maximum score of 110 points for the Center Test and 440 points for the school’s own exam.

So it’s easy to see why in Japan, as in China, the process of preparing for university admission begins early. The competition surrounding higher education has spurred a lucrative cottage industry of preparatory classes and so-called “escalator” schools, some of which provide education all the way through university (without having to take the Center Test). These programs, which have grown in popularity over the last two decades, are so sought after that parents are judged in interviews based on how they dress and applicants have to take aptitude assessments (typically consisting of a written test, art projects, puzzles and games, and physical exercises) to secure a spot. The result is another kind of “exam hell” for these young children: To prepare, many attend juku, or cram schools, a process that requires a huge investment of time and often costs far more than all but the highest echelons of Japanese socioeconomic ladder can afford. Some families go into debt just to pay for kindergarten cram school, which can cost as much as $13,000 a year. That’s close to half the average household net-adjusted disposable income in Japan.*

As the research demonstrates, the consequences of this testing culture extend far beyond families’ wallets. In effectively compelling children to begin the college-admissions process when they’re just a few years old, it can force kids to develop an insidious fixation on university acceptance at a stage in life when they’re still learning how to use scissors and beginning to grasp the concept of time. This fixation only becomes more entrenched, and deleterious, as they approach adulthood.


In explaining the reforms, which are set to be rolled out by the 2020 academic year, when Tokyo will host the Olympic Games, MEXT tends to cite the test’s influence on macroeconomics more than it does students’ mental health.

Chihiro Otsuka, a deputy director at MEXT, explained in a phone interview that the current iteration of the Center Test fails to prepare Japanese students to meet the challenges of a 21st-century world: “In the old days, abilities such as memorizing vast amounts of information … were high-valued [in the Japanese job market],” she told me in English. “However, in today’s fast-changing world, where artificial intelligence and engineering are progressing, expected roles of human beings are changing.”

In emphasizing rote memorization, the Center Test fails to inspire many high-school educators from adapting their instruction to these trends. Instead, the educators tend to skew the materials they teach based on what they know will be in the test—a practice that results in what experts call “negative washback effect”—and Japanese policymakers fear this tendency is stymying Japanese students’ preparation for a changing economy.

The new Center Test (which has been rebranded as Daigaku Nyugaku Kyotsu in an effort to underscore the break from the previous version) will be designed to assess critical thinking, judgment, and expression; it will, according to Otsuka, foster not just the acquisition of knowledge and skills, but also the ability to adapt to different professional environments and market needs. MEXT believes this will generate a shift in priorities when it comes to high-school teaching, prepare the next generation of workers to meet a challenging and often ruthless job market, and ultimately retain the country’s competitive edge in the global economy.

These changes to the Center Test are part of a larger effort to ensure Japan’s higher-education system responds to modern-day realities—among them the fact that a severe demographic crisis puts it at risk of obsolescence. The country’s young adult population, the source of prospective applicants, has been declining. The number of 15-24 year-olds in Japan in 1950 stood at about 16.2 million; in 2015, it was about 12 million, roughly 1.2 million of whom were 18 years old. Fewer prospective students mean universities are struggling to fill their classes, and less well-ranked schools might be forced to shutter if they fail to attract a big enough student body whose tuition money sustains them.

Either way, universities have little choice but to adapt or perish. It’s a fate that has already befallen some establishments—St. Thomas University, a Catholic school in Amagasaki, was forced to close in 2015 due to low enrollment. While the education ministry can’t do much about the country’s demographic crisis, policymakers see a reform of the testing system as one way to ensure the remaining student population is better-trained and -equipped for the challenging job market that awaits it.

In the past, reforms of this scale have been met with intense pushback in Japan. But the government believes that this time will be different. “There is a real impetus from the ministry to somehow jumpstart real reform,” said Doshisha University’s Poole. There’s also Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s ambitious initiative to revive Japan’s economy—an effort partly aimed at stemming the consequences of a rapidly aging population. The education ministry’s efforts would leverage Abe’s economic-development goals while also cultivating a higher-learning system that, according to MEXT’s Otsuka, measures human achievement in a more wholesome and diverse way, and accounts for “applicants’ abilities, wishes, and suitability.”

All of this, of course, sounds good on paper. But will the Japanese government actually pull this off and train the global workforce of tomorrow? At this point, it’s hard to say. Perhaps the more appropriate question, with the Japanese population expected to shrink 35 percent by 2065, would be: Do they have a choice?

*This article originally stated that $13,000 was almost half the average household income. It is almost half the average household disposable income. We regret the error.