Twice a week, Ko goes to cram school to prepare for the crucial entrance exam he will have to take next year.
He arrives for class with a tiny knapsack packed with his crayons, lunch box and a diaper. He is, after all, only 2 years old.
Japan’s super-competitive system of “examination hell” is engulfing ever-younger children, spawning a new industry of cram schools to help the baby boomers’ babies pass entrance exams for elite private kindergartens and elementary schools.
About 150 cram schools in Tokyo now cater to preschoolers, who are drilled in the test-taking strategies they need to beat the 10-to-1 odds for a slot on the kiddie fast-track.
Among the lessons: Know your colors, shapes and nursery rhymes. Don’t cry or whine. Sit with your hands politely resting on your thighs. And never take more than one cookie when offered the cookie jar.
The cram schools also coach the babies’ mothers in how to ace the equally vital parental interview.
Among the tips: Wear a conservative, navy blue suit, a white blouse, low heels and no flashy jewelry. A Chanel handbag is OK at “liberal” kindergartens such as the famous Aoyama Gakuin, but a quiet, non-designer black bag is de rigueur at venerable institutions such as Denenchofu Futaba, whose alumni include Crown Princess Masako, wife of the future Japanese emperor.
Working mothers are frowned upon, and their children are less likely to be accepted by elite schools. Even stay-at-home moms are told to come across as homey during the interview by mentioning how much they enjoy baking special treats for their child.
“It’s very difficult, but because of the way Japan is now, it cannot be helped,” said Toshiko Hayashi, whose daughter Risa was rejected by the kindergarten of her choice and will have to try again next fall.
Risa has been attending one of Tokyo’s better cram schools since age 18 months. Tuition is $730 a month for two mornings a week.
How long will she keep attending?
“Until she passes,” her mother said firmly.
Parents call the cram schools a “necessary evil” in Japan’s “education society,” where graduates of a handful of elite universities have for decades been seen as monopolizing the nation’s best jobs, highest salaries and deepest respect.
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