We just passed the height of the university exam seasons and teenagers all over the country have been busy cramming as much as possible before sitting for one or several of these exhausting exams. The entrance exams to university is a big deal in Japan, but maybe less so these days, than in Korea or China. Many students wish to enter the most prestigious nationally famous Tokyo universities and even hotels are doing well catering to the students that traveled far away to sit out the exams in Tokyo. Many universities and colleges have their own exams but there are also national level exams administered centrally by the National Center Test for University Admissions, called the central exams, or sentashiken. Starting in 1990 with 148 universities, this year 843 universities took part, of which 80% were not national or public universities. Testing took place in 693 locations, from testing centers located on tropical islands to centers covered in thick snow. Managing such a massive event must be incredibly difficult but the authorities usually make a good job of it. The test is closely watched by millions of people and is a hot item in news media and the slightest problems or mix ups are widely reported. This year the biggest problem was small mistake in the geography section of the test, and apparently a handful of students in a southern location were given the wrong testing sheet for another section. Considering that 560 672 students took the test the problems were relatively minor. That number includes both students who take the test a second time after having failed to get into their first choice of university the first time around. Those students are called “ronin”, as a reference to the masterless samurai from the old days. They spend a year in limbo, studying hard. Some people even spend years as ronin before giving up or finally being accepted into the university of their choice. If you ask a Japanese parent how their son or daughter did in the test and they use the term “ronin-chu” (in the middle of being a ronin), you know now what they mean!
In order to maximize their chances for the university exams, a lot of students visit one of the shrines dedicated to the Gods of learning and scholars, and offer a votive plates, ema, with their prayers. Tokyo’s most famous shrine dedicated to learning is the Yushima Tenjin, near Ueno, where I took these photos late last year. The ema were hanging over a meter thick in some places and there were many of these ema rails in front of the shrine. Most were dedicated by the students or parents themselves, but some were dedicated by relatives, or even teachers praying for their students success and listing whole rows of names on the back of the ema! It is quite touching to see such concern. Yushima Tenjin is famous with non-students as well, and I also had a look at their gorgeous Chrysanthemum exhibition.
Here’s one of my favorite graduation works at the National Art Center last week, from the hands of Marie Maruyama (丸山麻莉枝) of the Japan Women’s Art University (日本女子美術大学), a series of what looks like cyborg animals but simple titled “No.4″. When I was young I was an avid reader of the cyberpunk sub-genre of Science Fiction, and I would have adored these back then! A ferret, a rabbit, a dog and mouse in a series of mix media sculptures. Well done Ms. Maruyama!
In March, the traditional month for all university graduations in Japan, I happened to be in Tokyo’s Kudanshita district, just near the Budokan in the Kitamaru Koen. This was the big day for all students at Nihon Daigaku, the biggest university in Tokyo and in Japan with almost 70 000 undergraduate students. The graduation ceremony had ended and hundreds of the most wonderfully dressed young women paraded past me, of course I had to snap a few photos! The traditional graduation dress of women in Japan consist of the kimono over which a hakama is worn, the trouser like skirt also often worn by martial artists. It’s a gorgeous combination! To this form of kimono, it is common to wear boots of the 1920′s era rather than the more traditional sandals.