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New Charms Help Students Through Exam Hell

March 21, 2000

Written wishes for exam success hanging at a Shinto shrine.

February through March in Japan is the season for school entrance exams. As in the past, Shinto shrines become crowded around this time with students seeking divine assistance to help them pass their tests and gain admission to the schools of their choice.

In addition to this long-standing tradition, however, a host of new good-luck items that symbolize resistance to failure are also being snapped up. These include products featuring the team emblem of a pro soccer team that has consistently staved off demotion and apples that clung on despite a destructive typhoon.

Is the recent rush to acquire such items just another passing fad among young people, or does it reflect deeper changes in the entrance-exam phenomenon resulting from the nation's declining birthrate?

Failure-Free Goods
Over the past couple of years, a collection of goods has emerged that "protect" holders from tumbling into the abyss of defeat. Among them are goods carrying the logo of Avispa Fukuoka, a J. League soccer team based in Kyushu, which in 1999 avoided being demoted to a lower division by just one point. Avispa has lived on the brink in the rankings for the past two seasons and has supporters sitting on pins and needles. But for entrance-exam takers, the team's resilience is a source of courage and good fortune.

The most popular of these goods are stationery items carrying the Avispa logo. The team's official store in Fukuoka's business district was recently jam-packed with high-school students about to take their entrance exams; after pencils and erasers were sold out, fluorescent pens and notebooks became big sellers.

Fukuoka is also the home of Dazaifu Tenmangu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of learning, and so is a mecca for students looking for help with school admission. Taking advantage of its proximity to the shrine, the team store erected its own "Avispa Shrine" at its entrance, which has further propelled sales of "failure-free" goods with the Avispa logo.

Another item that became a symbol of tenacity is the Akita apple. In September 1991 a devastating typhoon wreaked havoc on the crops of Japan's northern farming regions. The apple orchards in the Komagata area of Akita, however, managed to survive with only minor loss. Area farmers commemorate these "apples that refused to fall" with an annual event that includes presenting apples inscribed with the words "prayer for a successful exam" to test takers.

Another "failure-free" charm is a train ticket sold at Miyamoto Musashi Station on the Chizu Line in Okayama Prefecture. The station is named after the legendary Edo-period (1600-1868) swordsman who never lost a duel in his life. After these tickets went on sale with the phrase "certain victory" and "success with exams" printed on them, the station received a flood of orders and inquiries.

Sign of Changing Times?
The main factor behind the popularity of these goods is the competitive nature of entrance exams. Japan's declining birthrate, however, has taken some of the edge off this competition. Preliminary estimates by the Ministry of Education suggest that by fiscal 2009 (April 2009 to March 2010), the number of students applying for a place in four- and two-year colleges and the number of spaces available will roughly even out, making it possible, theoretically, for everyone who wants to attend college to do so.

These figures do not tell the whole story, however, since today's entrance-exam battleground has become increasingly polarized. Students wishing to go on to college are beginning to take it upon themselves to decide which schools to apply to, instead of relying on the advice of their teachers, as was formerly common. Consequently, competition for admission to the most prestigious schools has become more intense, while less attractive schools are having a difficult time attracting enough test takers.

Advice from teachers, moreover, is factoring less in decisions about applications to high, middle, and even elementary schools. Increasingly, schoolchildren are opting to attend private schools for compulsory education, which in Japan lasts through middle school. The result has been a further escalation of the race to gain entrance to a limited number of select schools. And students, it appears, are now turning to any help they can get to overcome the intensifying competition.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.