Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Big National Event

A HUGE national event is coming up this weekend. It's not so important culturally or traditionally or religiously, but it could be the crossroad of life for many youths in Japan - it's called the "center-shiken", the "center examination".

The center-exam is kind of like an equivalent to SAT in the States and though I'm not sure of the name I think there's a similar one in South Korea too (sorry, I don't know the educational systems in other countries). It's a big exam most people who want to go on to college are required to take, and the scores for this exam become the guideline and indicator of whether you have chances to go to the school of your choice.

If a Japanese person wants to go to college/university, the most common way is to take a written entrance exam (juken) and simply get high scores. But since this style of exams only pushes students to remember facts and hinders them from obtaining real learning skills in their teenage years, an increasing number of colleges/univs are getting started with interview-style and other exams based on self-presentation and self assessment. The center-exams are used for both methods though not for all schools.

You can read more about Japanese education system and issues in the educational policies
here at my ex-bosses blog. It's a pretty good and detailed series and it's up to date, too.

Anyway, this center-exam is the starter of the whole college entrance exam battle, or "juken-sensou" as we call it in Japanese. It's been around for decades, and sadly it seems like even with the gradual change in education tendencies and the decline of birthrates (= scramble of students) this so-called battle won't disappear for a while.

As mentioned a bit in the past entries (
fortune telling / blood type characters ) Japanese people are pretty superstitious. And together with the millennium-long tradition and natural character of playing with words, there is this funny custom of wishing best luck with objects, animals and food. For example, there is this little ornament of a frog at the entrance of my house and this is for safe return because frog is "kaeru" and "kaeru" is also the verb for "to return (home)".

Similar beliefs (though by no means serious worship) exist with good luck on passing exams. The most historical one, at least among the ones I know, is tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is a Japanese dish of pork cutlet, and I don't knot about the "ton" part but "katsu" means to win. So what people do is to eat tonkatsu before an important test.

The custom spread rapidly in the food business especially in the snack industry. A famous one - and a product even originally non-Japanese - is KitKat. KitKat pronounced in Japanese "kitto-katto" is somewhat close to the sound of a short sentence "kitto katsu" which means " (I'll/you'll probably win). "Probably" here is a pretty strong possibility. A corn puff snack Carl (kaaru) turns into the verb "to pass" if you add an "u" sound on the top so that too is an exam-lucky snack. If you switch the order of the sounds of the name of the famous chocolate stick snack Pocky, it (the sound) becomes "kippo" which is good news.

Ones that can't really related the names to good luck for the exams related the goods with cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms is the symbol in Japan for the season spring, and spring is the season when the new school year starts. The term "sakura saku" = cherry blossoms bloom is used to describe happy situations, in which somebody's long effort finally achieves a goal. Cherry blossom isn't really a food but the petals and leaves are sometimes used for dishes and sweets, and it has a unique aroma too, so snacks add hints of cherry blossom fragrance or extracts or just color the food slightly pinkish to ride on the juken wave.

Like this, a good load of snacks are trying to increase their sales by relating these snack products to the national event. The tendency is escalating every year and this year I see more than the last. Not that many people take it seriously, but I find it pretty funny looking at the line-ups on the shelves of super markets and convenience stores. It sounds stupid, but I like this aspect of Japanese character of making everything into something else and doing stupid things seriously.
We're supposed to be stern, rock-hard serious people, right?

Today's update on
Japan Mode: Yojijukugo - is a four-kanji-idiom which most derive from ancient Chinese sayings but are used commonly in Japanese language. I haven't had new posts for this section for nearly two months, so it's the first update in a pretty long time. For the first edition of the new year I chose ones that have ambitious meanings.

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