Tokyobling's Blog

University Exams – Yushima Tenjin

Posted in Japanese Traditions, Places by tokyobling on January 30, 2014

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.













19 Responses

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  1. Hangaku Gozen said, on January 30, 2014 at 4:49 am

    Lovely photographs, as always. While I was in graduate school, my daughter bought for me from a shrine in Toyama a good-luck charm that was supposed to bring good grades to the bearer. I put it on my book bag and carried it to the library during those grueling years of research for my thesis. I defended my thesis and passed with flying colors. Was it the result of the charm? I can’t say, but it didn’t hurt either!


    • tokyobling said, on January 30, 2014 at 7:29 am

      Thank you! Actually, recently the monitor on my little laptop broke (it is still functioning but not very well) so the last couple of weeks I haven’t been able to see the colors/editing of my photos. I hope they come out ok even though I am editing “blind”. I should get a charm for general luck I think! I am sure your thesis was the result of your persistence! Having the moral support of the Gods never hurt though! (^-^)


  2. Schedim said, on January 30, 2014 at 4:51 am

    Ronin .. How appropiate!


  3. Charly Senall said, on January 30, 2014 at 6:32 am

    Very interesting subject and very well resolved the photo report.
    Best regards.


  4. Lilichan06 said, on January 30, 2014 at 6:49 am

    So many ema !!!!
    Very interesting post 🙂


    • tokyobling said, on January 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

      There must be thousands and thousands of them! (^-^;) Thank you Lilichan!


  5. celia knox said, on January 30, 2014 at 10:38 am

    I have never seen so many ema! I heard they get thrown away each day in busy periods to make room for new additions. Do you know if they are recycled, burned, etc?


    • tokyobling said, on January 31, 2014 at 12:23 am

      Hi Celia! Every shine has different methods but the ritual burning is part of the life cycle of religious icons, votive plates, charms, anything associated with the Gods really. Ema are considered as being connected to the fates of the people who write them and I know some people that refuse to touch other people’s ema, so as not to interfere or pollute their “en” (fate?). I touch them sometimes but I prefer not to. Making these are not that cheap so there is not a huge amount of profit in it for most shrines.

      Here are three posts on the subject of ritual fires and burning of ema and other ritual objects at both a temple and a shrine:


      • celia knox said, on February 3, 2014 at 4:01 am

        Very interesting! I didn’t know about not touching other people’s ema. I don’t think I have before, luckily! Those daruma in your other posts look so sad, being burnt alive. 😦 Nothing lasts forever I guess.


        • tokyobling said, on February 3, 2014 at 4:09 am

          Thank you! Don’t worry too much about touching them. I still do sometimes… (^-^;) Daruma are made with their end in mind, they are hollow and flimsy, made of papier mache and burns really quickly. So it is arranged the way things are supposed to be!


  6. Yousei Hime said, on January 30, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    The pressure on those students must be tremendous, with family, friends, and a nation watching.


    • tokyobling said, on January 31, 2014 at 12:24 am

      I can only imagine. I am from a country without entrance exams so I don’t know what it must be like, but I know students of countries with entrance exams do much much better in the international rankings. I wonder if there is a connection?


  7. pk1154 said, on January 30, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    I am strange, in that I not only love to look at chrysanthemums, I love the fragrance.

    High-stakes testing is probably not the best way to choose students, just a simpler and more mechanical method. (I say that as someone who benefited from testing, in that I had exceptional scores as a high school student and was a National Merit Scholar.)

    I wish every one of those young scholars could realize their dreams!


    • tokyobling said, on January 31, 2014 at 12:27 am

      I have never actually been able to notice the smell of a chrysanthemum! (^-^;)

      It might not be the best method but there might be a link between this and the fact that students of countries where entrance exams are important generally have extremely high PISA scores. Or is that just coincidence? Hm… I need to read up on the subject! (^-^) I think it is heritage of confucianism.


      • pk1154 said, on January 31, 2014 at 1:59 pm

        The whole chrysanthemum plant has an herbaceous, earthy odor. I love to gently bruise the leaves and flowers to bring out the smell but most people don’t like it. (Apparently D. H. Lawrence wrote a short story titled “Odour of Chrysanthemums” though I have not read it.) I also like the smell of marigolds.

        There are some smells not everyone can smell. I am cursed with an excellent sniffer, so a widely planted and pretty tree flowering, Pyrus calleryana, smells to me like rotting fish and bird manure while many people say it has no odor at all! (E did an experiment when she was in high school using the flowers of this tree.)


  8. Cathryn said, on January 30, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    During our time in Tokyo, this was our ‘local shrine’…it’s beautiful there. There’s also a fantastic sushi place down the hill near Yushima metro station, we ate so well there. I loved that neighbourhood.


    • tokyobling said, on January 31, 2014 at 12:28 am

      It is lovely indeed! I love that part of Tokyo, the intersection between Bunkyo Ward and Taito Ward! Wish I could live there! (^-^)


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