Tourists to Japan may be too goo-goo eyed admiring the beauteous sakura cherry blossoms, ladies in kimono, or captivating giant television screens on every building façade, that they miss to notice languished-looking elementary or high school children walking in the streets or getting out of train stations late at night. No one wonders what these children are doing at that time of night when they should be at home having dinner with their families or doing their homework?
Juku is the term for private cram schools or preparatory schools attended by more than 60% of Japanese students either to prepare themselves for entrance exams to private schools, or to receive extra tutorials in subjects they do not excel at. Yobiko is the equivalent of juku for high school students who prepare for entrance to universities. Juku classes are offered to children as young as four years old who wish to enter private kindergartens. Subjecting these young children to rigid mental training at such a supple age can truly be challenging, and carves the early life cycle of educational pressure. It is said that eight out of ten juku students are heavily “pushed” to enroll in these night schools by their parents, and not by self-will. Class hours are held usually from 5:00~8:00 p.m. or later, twice to three times a week or more, depending on the juku. The older the child is, the longer the study hours stretch, until after 9:00 p.m. or beyond, which can include weekends and summer and winter holidays! Parents also have to prepare o-bento packed dinner meals for their children. The kids are allowed a tiny 15-minute break to eat their dinner between classes.
Consequently, after grinding their brains for twelve hours day to night, children who attend juku are prone to show up late for regular school in the morning, or end up falling asleep during classes. Some students tend to take regular schooling less seriously, believing that their performance in the juku would provide them better benefits for their educational future. Apparently, even their parents do not complain about this theory.
The juku system can be traced back from the Heian period. Until the 16th century, juku were private tutorials given to children from the noble upper class. From the Edo period, the system encouraged reading, writing and mastery of the calculus (soroban) for a larger population. Juku’s popularity increased throughout generations, but it was during the 1960s when the system became a part of Japanese daily life, since it gradually promoted extensive curricula for preparing kids to pass high school entrance examinations. Now, it is a huge, lucrative profit-making industry. In fact, Japan is said to have the largest number of preparatory schools in the world. The competition among juku schools is so stiff that it is customary to find huge billboards of enrollee statistics plastered on the windows of juku schools to advertise the school's success in sending off their sheep to prestigious training farms—“brand” universities, such as Meiji, Keio, or Waseda that assumingly promise the youth greener pastures for the future.
Naturally, juku tuition fees can be expensive, almost equivalent to the tuition for regular private schools. Many Japanese families believe that sending their kids to juku is a MUST if a child plans to enter a private school. The tough competition to enter the best schools also connote that a child who does not attend juku would lag behind among all the rest who do. Besides, it is strongly believed that only the juku has access to the test problems of particular schools, and therefore, these students are given advanced “tips” on what approach to use to pass the entrance exams.
As the standard of living accelerates in today’s Japanese economy, the “ideal” desire to attain prestigious careers is imminent. The best high school means the best university, and therefore, the best job, and even the best luck to find the best spouse, or they say. The more liberal parents who refuse to engage in the juku system have learned to opt for sending their children to schools abroad or to international schools. However, with the still minimal spread of English language usage in everyday life, Japanese students are generally still convinced that education in Japan is the best security for their future.
For a country that hardly says “no” to its influential superiors, who can stop the children now? A popular proverb is written, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it."