Five-year-old Yuki Uchida had taken her exams and gotten the results: one rejection, one wait-list, three acceptances. Her mother was visibly relieved.
Yuki was her usual cheerful, take-charge self. "Now I don't have to study any more this year!" she announced.
She is among the thousands of Tokyo kindergartners for whom this month is the culmination of two years of study and thousands of dollars in fees. In November they take the exams, sit through interviews, and receive within just a few days the notices that will affect their lives for the next 16 years: admission or rejection by one of Tokyo's private primary schools.
It's not a matter simply of filling out an application, taking the child for a group play session while teachers observe and having an interview. These are real exams, and no one passes who hasn't done at least a year of cram school. The cost can be close to $100 an hour for a minimum two-hour class held once or twice a week.
All college-bound Japanese students face an entrance exam at some point in their education, and for most it comes when they are trying to get accepted to a university. Yuki began trying to crack private school at an earlier stage, and passing the test means she won't have to take another entrance exam--ever--if she enters the university associated with her school. Students can also choose to take a test for a private middle school or high school. Private schools are appealing because many public schools are viewed as places where teachers cannot control unruly classes or bullying, and where the education level is too low.
For Yuki, cram school--on which her family had just spent more than $10,000 to prepare for the first-grade entrance exam--is over. A cardboard box sits on the living room floor overflowing with her homework and practice tests.
Her mother knew that if Yuki didn't get in, they'd be spending all their time and money on cram school to prepare for the next level, junior high entrance exams. Or for high school exams if they decided to wait that long before switching to private school. Now she will be able to go on vacation with her parents, who are avid skiers. They had named her Yuki, which means snow, and with her successful entry into private school, she will have the freedom to take winter ski trips.
Competition for private schools had gotten fierce, despite the fact that fewer children are born every year. "The low birthrate is having the opposite effect," said Hideo Ohori, the founder of Shingakai, one of Tokyo's biggest cram schools but far from the most expensive--the monthly tuition for two hours of study per week is about $685.
"People are now having only one child so they're pouring all their affection and money on the one kid," Ohori said.
While older students take their exams in January, the primary school applications finish by the end of November, before the cold of winter.
But whose idea was cram school for a 5-year-old?
At 2:40 p.m. on a recent Saturday, a group of 5- and 6-year-olds were sitting in a classroom in an office building across the street from Tokyo's busy Ikebukuro train station. Their colorful quilted book bags hung neatly at the side of their desks. The blinds were closed to the light.
The teacher, Michio Iida, sat at a small desk in front of the 19 students with a pile of papers and called on them one by one to answer questions.
"What is your favorite story?"
He made a note.
"Where is your house?"
Someone asked, "What do you mean by where?" (The kids often challenged their teacher's question, asking what he meant.)
"Your address is okay. Or the nearest train station," Iida said.
How did you come here today? What is your father's job? What is your father like? What is your mother like?
Questions about the father's role in the family are relatively new in the admissions process. In response to this, some fathers are making a huge effort to get home from work in time to see the family in the months before the school interview.
One after another, Iida led his students through exercises requiring memory, concentration, ability to count and define directions. No writing of letters is required.
By now the sky outside was dark and neon blinked on buildings across the street.
While many Japanese are critical of the exam system, parents also say cram school makes up for some of the deficiencies of public school and is actually enjoyable for older kids because they develop a set of friends there and a social life apart from their day school. The classes are smaller, usually no more than 20, and the more expensive schools have even smaller groups. Public schools, on the other hand, are required to have 40 students per class. The teacher at cram school often has a warmer and closer rapport with the students.
Iida, whose relationship to the children was more like that of a well-loved soccer coach, ended the last session before the test with a pep talk. The parents had entered the room and a mother or father was sitting next to each child's desk. Iida told them they'd be taking their tests in two days, to speak up, don't cry and try hard. He told them that when they started first grade next April, no matter where they went, they should raise their hands clearly, look at the teacher and walk in the halls.
"Now close your eyes," he told the children. "I am giving you the power." They sat still, eyes closed for a few seconds of silence as he looked at each one of them. The children seemed pleased with the ceremonial conclusion to their lessons; the tension among their parents was palpable.
CAPTION: Cram school teacher Michio Iida demonstrates an exercise with rubber bands to his class of 5- and 6-year-olds. This month thousands of students will take exams and sit for interviews for entry into Tokyo's exclusive private schools.